A different kind of school year begins at Rowe

Students wear masks and keep six feet apart in the classroom.

Students wear masks and keep six feet apart in the classroom.

(Hannah Clements)

R. Roger Rowe School was the first public school in the county to welcome students back for in-person learning last month. Some students gave positive reviews of the different kind of school year in a video shown to the Rancho Santa Fe School board at its Sept. 3 meeting: “It’s nice to being back on campus and being with the teachers,” said one student.

“It’s fun, we’ve been off of school for awhile and it’s good to go back and see our friends again.”

“It’s kind of weird because we have zones and can’t play with other kids but I think it’s actually pretty nice,” said one student of keeping in set cohorts on the playground.

A couple of kids mentioned that physically being at school rather than being online makes it a lot easier to focus and get work done.

“It has been so heartwarming and wonderful to see our students here,” said Superintendent Donna Tripi. “I love doing traffic in the morning, just to see them jump out of their cars ready to learn and excited to be here, it’s just amazing.”

The protocol during morning drop-off now includes the use of infrared temperature scanners at arrival, thanks to a donation from Roger Pawson. The symptom check is an extra safety measure the school is providing above and beyond the state and county guidelines.

The school held virtual back-to-school nights last week and is exploring the idea of a drive-in movie night on campus to bring families together in a safe way. Only one person spoke during public comment at the first board meeting after the start of this new school year: parent Rosemarie Rohatgi complimented the district on its new elementary school engineering program, which she got to witness when her student started the year in distance learning.

When the school year started, over 100 students were in distance learning but now they are down to 62, about 10% of the school population.

After the first week of school, the Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association informed the district about some of its concerns about being back on campus and those issues are being worked out. Some teachers said being back at school brings mixed emotions, they are so happy to see their students but they are also feeling “overwhelmed, frustrated and exhausted” with the new type of dual instruction, managing teaching students in the classroom and students at home in the distance learning model. Some pointed to a lack of technology—the district purchased SWIVL cameras for each classroom but they did not arrive in time for the first day of school on Aug. 24.

A Rowe student reads a book outdoors at school.
A Rowe student reads a book outdoors at school.
(Hannah Clements

According to Tripi, the SWIVLs arrived on Sept. 11 and it will take a week or two to install and train the teachers before they can be implemented. The cameras will help with tracking teachers and kids in class, will be helpful with screen sharing and the devices include a microphone that enables students at home to hear everyone in the classroom more clearly, not just the teacher: “I think it will enhance the experience for them,” Tripi said.

RSF School Board President Scott Kahn and trustee Sarah Neal spoke about the importance of keeping in touch with distance learning families to hear their experiences and what they might need.

“We have gotten feedback from our distance learning families and I think the biggest piece of that was that they anticipated something different than what we were offering so that took a little adjustment,” Tripi said.

In response to COVID-19, Senate Bill 98 requires all school districts to provide a distance learning option for all students whose families do not feel comfortable having their children attend in-person school. The district is required to provide daily live interaction, meet instructional minute requirements, and provide assessment and grading just as they do for in-person instruction. To accomplish this, Rancho Santa Fe is offering students interactive learning by live streaming with an on-campus classroom: “We’re trying to mirror the experience of in-person class,” Tripi said.

Neal acknowledged that none of this current pandemic situation is perfect but she complimented the students, teachers and administrative staff for the job they have done to get back to school and to some sense of normalcy.

“I know a lot of this wasn’t comfortable, there’s a lot of uncertainty and discussions around what we should be doing and I feel our staff has just been so professional about working with our students and engaging students in the classroom,” Neal said. “I’m just so proud of our district, I feel like we’ve really lead the way in this.”

Prior to the start of school, all RSF School District teachers and staff were tested for COVID-19. The California Department of Public Health guidelines state that it is important for staff to be tested on a regular basis but did not set requirements—the district is following the county’s guidelines in which staff is tested every two months. The district is receiving help on testing from the San Diego County Office of Education and is utilizing the county’s free testing sites to schedule all staff testing.

Kahn has worked to stay connected with what’s going on in the testing world and provided an informational update at the Sept. 10 board meeting. He reported that the trend has been to use more frequent testing of asymptomatic individuals and said test frequency is perhaps the most impactful thing that they could do as a school district in order to ensure a safe environment for everyone.

Kahn shared what La Jolla Country Day is doing as Rancho Santa Fe continues to evaluate the best options for testing staff and possibly students periodically.

At La Jolla Country Day, testing is being provided for all students, faculty and staff before they return to in-person learning using an on-site testing machine designed and manufactured by Quidel in San Diego. Testing on campus is coordinated through Virtual Care for Families, the testing partner of the Big 12 Conference, and is managed by a team from Healthtopia Clinics in Encinitas. La Jolla Country Day has not yet determined how often they will do the testing.

Last week neighboring Solana Beach School District entered a partnership with UC San Diego Health for the voluntary testing of all its students and Chula Vista Elementary approved a partnership with Irvine-based Kahala Biosciences for a voluntary testing program for students.

At the Sept. 10 meeting, board members were supportive of having the district’s Health and Hygiene Committee continue to explore the various testing options as part of its ongoing study, to better understand the cost impacts and other factors such as the legal aspects and what the value would be of testing students if, say, 20% opted out.

“As one board member I would need to be convinced, and many parents would need to be convinced, why all of a sudden we would require frequent testing of asymptomatic students,” Trustee Tyler Seltzer said, noting that student testing has not been mandated by the state.

Board Vice President Kali Kim said she is happy with the way the committee has worked so far and how the superintendent has proceeded with its guidance, taking science-driven and prudent steps regarding reopening. The committee will give a presentation on testing at a future meeting.