Students under 12 years of age are not required to wear masks, according to the Marin Health and Human Services, even while attending an in-person pilot program at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)
Every day that Kim Lewis headed out the door to her job at a nursing home in San Rafael, she left her husband, Robert Lewis, to keep track of their first- and third-graders' homeschooling, while he also watched their 4 year old.
Lewis said their kids’ teachers had been pretty good at communicating and tracking progress, but she said sometimes the kids would be "sneaky."
“They pretend they're doing their homework, but they don't," she said, laughing. "They think it’s vacation."
Then one day, school principal David Finnane knocked on their door.
“He was so funny. He said, ‘What's going on? Where's my kids?'" said Lewis. "And then my husband was like, ‘Oh, they didn't do their homework today.’”
Shortly after Marin County issued shelter-in-place orders in mid-March, Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy realized a small number of its 120 students were having a hard time learning from home.
Superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, Itoco Garcia, said staff came together as a team and began calling families at home.
“Part of the reason some of our kids were struggling to get their distance learning done is that their parents are essential workers and they’re still working," said Garcia, adding that he could relate, with kids of his own at home.
But the phone calls weren't enough, so the school decided to offer 35 parents the option of sending their children to school from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. to learn in class with a teacher.
Lewis said that after learning about the safety procedures the school would put in place, she felt comfortable signing the school’s waiver and agreed to send in her children, Cameron and Camora.
“I trust the school,” she said. “It was a relief.”
The three-week pilot began May 20 and ended on the last day of school, June 4. Twenty-seven students from the K-8 school, which is near the border of Marin City and Sausalito, consistently attended school in the building as part of a limited test run of how things could work this summer and in the fall. The school took guidance from the county health department.
Protocol during the three weeks required families to drop their children off outside the school at staggered times in 10 to 15 minute intervals and by grade level or cohort; if students arrived in groups, they were directed to stand on taped marks 6 feet apart outside.
At the school doorway, administrative assistant Julius Holtzclaw checked each student, making sure they had masks on, got their temperature checked, and received a big squirt of hand sanitizer and rubbed while he counted to 20. He asked them whether they had had any diarrhea or vomiting the night before.
Superintendent Garcia said county public health officials had advised that students in the pilot program under the age of 12 didn’t need to wear masks, but the school still encouraged it. Teachers had to wear masks, and inside each classroom was a desk holding extra masks and hand sanitizer.
As fifth grader Roderick Bradley arrived, Holtzclaw reminded him to put on his mask
"Yeah, a little bit, it bothers me,” said Roderick. But he said he was glad to be back in class with his friend Bairon Puertas.
“This was a good idea,” said Bairon. “Because if I don’t get something, the teacher is there. I could just ask for help.”
The boys sat at desks 6 feet apart, and the maximum class size during the pilot was 10.
Fifth grade teacher Brandon Culley is one of several teachers who volunteered to return to Bayside MLK. He figured he could run his virtual classes from inside the school for the majority of his students who were doing fine learning from home, while at the same time provide in-person instruction for six of his students for whom virtual learning was not working.
“I just really wanted to come back to work,” said Culley. “I'm a person-to-person kind of teacher. It was just really odd, trying to get it all done through Zoom.”
However, it’s not lost on Culley that reopening school campuses is a risk. As shelter-in-place orders ease up, California is seeing a rise in the number of COVID-19 infections. The virus can spread from an adult to a child who then, potentially asymptomatic, can spread it to others.
“I'm questioning myself as to how close do I get? When is the last time I washed my hands or used hand sanitizer? There's a lot of filtering going on that is hard to get used to,” Culley said. “I'm constantly worried about kids being human beings in the sense of being close and talking and touching, and that's been challenging.”
Garcia said the pilot program proved that this school community can reopen classrooms safely. But he said it will take more investment by the state to achieve smaller class sizes in the fall.
Garcia said he will need to hire three more teachers in the fall to keep students in groups of 12, as recommended by public health and state guidelines for schools. Yet, he is facing a 10% budget reduction.
The state Legislature just passed a budget that rejected the deep cuts to education proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. However, it won’t be until July that state tax revenues will be tallied and word on whether any further COVID-19 relief is on its way from the federal government.
Some 80 families dropped their children off Monday at Bayside MLK for summer school. Summer school is when many students who need to catch up on learning can do so — and with the pandemic, this year there are plenty of takers.