RSF district to apply for waiver to reopen Rowe School

R. Roger Rowe School
(Staff photo)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District will pursue a waiver to reopen in-person school this fall.

RSF School Superintendent Donna Tripi and the board believe that with their comprehensive reopening plan that follows the state guidelines, they can do everything they can to keep students and staff safe. Tripi has said that they are in a unique position to be able to reopen safely with the campus’ large classroom spaces, commitment to small class sizes, ample outdoor space and the custodial staff to accomplish the required cleaning and sanitation practices. Tripi also cited the low rate of 48 reported positive COVID-19 cases in Rancho Santa Fe.

“The number one driving factor is what is best for the kids,” said board member Tyler Seltzer. “I am convinced and remain convinced that the single best thing for the students of this school district is to reopen the school and get them back on campus and in the classroom.”

According to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s July 17 order, schools can only physically open for in-person education when the county has been off the monitoring list for 14 consecutive days. San Diego County has been on the list since July 3 because it has a case rate greater than 100 per 100,000 people; the county’s rate is currently 120.4.

Tripi said the county is saying the likelihood that they would be off the watchlist before Aug. 24 is “slim to none” and the only way they could reopen is with the approval of the waiver.

The governor’s order stated that local county health officers may grant a waiver to allow elementary schools to reopen in-person instruction if the waiver is requested by the district superintendent in consultation with labor, parents and community-based organizations. When considering a waiver request, the local health officer must consider local data and consult with the California Department of Public Health.

The California Department of Public Health released the waiver application process on Aug. 3 and it states that it is only applicable for grades TK-6, even if the school’s grade configuration includes additional grades.

At the board’s July 30 meeting, the board was unanimous in its support of pursuing the waiver: “I think we would be neglectful if we didn’t at least move forward with the waiver,” Trustee Sarah Neal said.

“If we don’t reopen now, then when?” asked board Vice President Kali Kim. “The longer we stay out the more fear and anxiety is going to increase for everyone.”

For those who are vulnerable and at-risk or for those parents who feel uncomfortable sending children back to school, the district would offer the choice of the distance learning model. As of last month, 50 of the expected enrollment of 550 students had opted for the distance learning model versus an in-person return to school.

If the waiver is not granted, all students would begin the school year with distance learning. Different from what was offered in the spring, there will be a structured weekly schedule including live interactive learning from 8:30 to 1:45 p.m. with asynchronous learning and office hours in the afternoon.

About 104 people tuned into the board’s July 30 call and the majority of parents who spoke supported the district working to get kids back into the classroom while some teachers spoke out against it.

R. Roger Rowe Teacher Joy Mendoza said she was concerned about returning to in-person instruction before it is safe to do so: “If our state’s governor, in consultations with top health and safety experts, says it is not safe for any schools in our county to open, why would we?”

She said she understands that Rancho Santa Fe is in a unique position given its low number of cases but asked that the district consider that almost none of the teachers and staff live in the district and some will be coming from other areas of the county with higher COVID-19 cases such as Chula Vista, Escondido, San Diego and Encinitas.

“If our school were to receive a waiver and reopen for in-person learning, many staff members would attend work each day full of fear and anxiety for our students, ourselves and our loved ones,” said Mendoza. “Distance learning comes with its own challenges but is avoiding these challenges worth risking the health and safety of our students and staff?”

First grade teacher Angelina Isambert encouraged the district to start the year with distance learning instead of applying for the waiver: “I’m confident that the exceptional educators I work with will be able to provide rigorous distance learning along with continuing to provide the social and emotional support each of our student needs and deserves while putting everyone’s safety first.”

During public comment, many parents said that they had confidence that the district has taken the necessary steps to safely reopen the school and that children could adapt to the new expectations such as masks and distancing. Parents on the call said that they want their kids back in school and it would be “detrimental” for them to remain at home in the distance learning model.

“In no way, in my opinion, is the remote learning anywhere near as effective as the in-classroom learning experience both from a learning perspective and from a social perspective,” said parent Andreas Bendl.

Parent Nadelle Kijewski said she wanted to listen to and understand the teachers’ perspectives but she, too, strongly believes that in order for children to learn they need to be in the classroom.

“I would like to confess here publicly that even as a former educator and a person who loves education and teaching that my children did very little to no learning in the spring,” Kijewski said. “Despite many hours of effort and enthusiasm on my part, I can’t say that my son, who is a smart kid, learned anything new. I can’t say that my daughter is any better of a reader. And I think that’s because our teachers are really good at teaching in person.”

When schools do reopen, they must follow the state’s plan for safe in-person school which includes new mask requirements: All staff and all students in third grade and above must wear masks. For students in second grade or below, the state strongly encourages facial coverings.

According to the district’s comprehensive plan, face coverings will be encouraged but not required for the younger students and they plan to pilot using face shields. Students will be asked to wear facial coverings when they arrive on campus, during transitions and when they have less than 6 feet of distance. Students who refuse to wear face coverings (and do not have an exemption) will be excluded from school and required to participate in distance learning.

Per the new guidance, schools are no longer required to do temperature checks for students and screening will happen at home prior to arriving at school. School staff must be tested regularly. Rowe’s plan includes six feet of social distancing in every classroom and keeping children in stable cohorts. The board also discussed more frequent testing of staff than is required by the state.

With R. Roger Rowe’s distance learning model, students will be assigned to Zoom with an on-campus classroom. On July 30, the board approved the $40,000 purchase of Swivl, a video technology that teachers can use in the classroom that makes it easy to record and share live streaming lessons as well as give remote students the opportunity to interact with in-class peers. The purchase was approved using some of the $200,000 in COVID-19 funds from the state.