After a year of distanced and hybrid learning, San Mateo County school districts are preparing for a full in-person return to campus for the new school year but eager hopes for total focus on learning loss have been tempered by a summer spike in COVID-19. 

“It wouldn’t be truthful for me to say I’m not concerned about the spike. We wanted to go into the school year focused on teaching and learning but it appears we’re going to have to keep a lot of focus on health and safety guidance too,” County Superintendent Nancy Magee said.

Ahead of the 2021-22 school year, a spike in COVID-19 has hit the region, largely caused by the new delta variant. While concerns for the more contagious mutation has resulted in stricter indoor masking guidance in the Bay Area as a way to ensure in-person school is possible this fall, health officials noted children do not appear to be at greater risk of contracting the virus. 

Recognizing concerns for the most recent surge, Magee said she stands by the department’s stance that children should be back to in-person learning, an argument supported by local health officials and state leadership. 

Campuses with older students struggled the most over the past year to reopen for safe in-person instruction given class schedules forcing high levels of interactions among students and teachers. But with support from leadership and experts and safety protocol in place, campuses are welcoming children back. 

Sequoia and San Mateo union high school districts and South San Francisco Unified School District shared plans this week for welcoming students back. Both SUHSD and SSFUSD will be reopening Wednesday, Aug. 11 while SMUHSD campuses will reopen Thursday, Aug. 12.

Students and staff at each campus will be required to wear masks when indoors regardless of vaccination status. Outdoor masking will not be required, including for outdoor sports and physical education classes, but SMUHSD officials said they will be encouraging mask wearing at all times. 

Masking guidance will be displayed across the districts’ campuses and additional masks will be available for those who may forget theirs. 

Javier Gutierrez, SUHSD’s health and wellness coordinator, said staff will use instances when students are defiant of masking as educational moments. If students remain defiant, they may be directed to independent study. 

Additional precautions at SSFUSD include propped-open doors and windows, upgraded heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems and deploying hospital-grade, mobile disinfection units which use ultraviolet rays. 

Despite the number of safety precautions being implemented, SSFUSD Superintendent Dr. Shawnterra Moore encouraged all families and employees to get vaccinated ahead of the school year. The district will be returning to in-person instruction for the first time since transitioning to remote learning early last year, according to a press release. 

“We are excited to welcome our community back,” Moore said in a press release. “However, we still want to take extra precautions to safeguard the health and safety of our students and staff.”

While vaccinations are not yet required for students or staff at the school districts, SMUHSD is currently collecting vaccination status of its school communities. SUHSD is also collecting staff vaccination information. 

Campuses in the three districts will largely use the honor system for monitoring students and staff COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone with symptoms is prohibited from entering classes and accommodations will be made to limit learning interruptions. Testing will also be available for students and staff. 

In case of exposure, the district will work in collaboration with County Health and the Office of Education to follow contact tracing procedures. Vaccinated students will still have the opportunity to attend school given that they wear a mask in all settings, have no symptoms, avoid participation in extracurricular activities and get tested twice within a week for a 10-day period. 

Each district will be closely abiding by health guidelines outlined by the California Department of Public Health and San Mateo County Health and will update its policies as necessary. 

“We are excited about welcoming our students in person,” Dr. Darnise Williams, Sequoia Union High School District superintendent, said. “We understand that while we are not out of the pandemic, we are prepared.” 

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