RSF School adopts new COVID safety protocols

R. Roger Rowe School District
(Staff photo)

Faculty agreement proposed for childcare needs


Due to the spike in COVID-19 cases, the Rancho Santa Fe School District has updated its safety protocols, reflecting feedback from a recent campus walkthrough with county health officials as well as newly released guidance from the California Department of Public Health.

“We believe that these added measures will help to protect staff and students as we weather these next crucial months of the pandemic,” said Superintendent Donna Tripi.

At the Jan. 14 RSF School District board meeting, the board approved new safety protocols around middle school break times, lunchtime during rainy days, class quarantines in the event of a positive case, contact tracing and how elective classes are taught.

Previously, elective teachers were teaching four classes of electives at the middle school and all elementary students in grades 1-5.
The new CDPH guidance stated that elective teachers who move in and out of stable cohorts can become points of exposure for themselves and students. In order to decrease the number of students that teachers are physically in contact with, Rancho Santa Fe’s new protocol will be that rather than switch rooms for electives, students will stay in their classrooms and elective teachers will teach on Zoom with a paraprofessional in the classroom for supervision.

The board was very supportive of the protocol changes which take extra precaution in a time of increased risk. Vice President Jee Manghani said that the board is committed to doing whatever they can to ensure school can remain open for the rest of the year.

R. Roger Rowe School had a visit from the San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency on Jan. 8 and the latest California Department of Public Health (CDPH) guidance on schools was put out on Jan. 14. The new CDPH guidance ranks the interventions known at this time to be the most effective in reducing the risk of transmission at schools. The top three preventative strategies are facial coverings, stable cohorts and physical distancing. Coming in fourth was adequate ventilation, followed by hand hygiene, symptom and close contact exposure screening and surveillance or screening testing.

One area that has changed since last spring involves cleaning practices.

“Frequent disinfection, which was thought at the beginning of the pandemic to be a key safety component, can pose a health risk to children and students due to the chemicals used and has proven to have limited to no impact on COVID19 transmission,” the guidance states.

Despite the updated guidance, Tripi said the district would not consider changing its sanitation protocols of cleaning classrooms and high-touch areas: “We still think that’s an important thing to have in place,” Tripi said. The district uses non-toxic ozonated water which Tripi said disinfects better than any chemical, as well as ultraviolet disinfecting wands to clean campus spaces.

“As adults appear to be more infectious overall than children” CDPH said there should be increased safety efforts focused on staff-to-staff transmission. The county recommended occupancy limits in the staff lounge as well as continuing to promote distancing between staff.

The county also suggested more staff testing, monthly if possible. Rancho Santa Fe teachers are tested every eight weeks, however, with the symptomatic testing the board has approved, they are basically are testing staff every month— they were tested after winter break and will be tested after family week or “Ski Week” Feb. 8-12 and spring break in March.

The county also recommended the use of 3-ply paper surgical masks that are discarded at the end of the day rather than cloth masks, boosting protocols in their special education classes such as the use of face shields in addition to masks and upgrading ventilation to the recommended MERV-13 filters. Tripi said that the county’s visit was on Friday, Jan. 8, and by Monday, Jan. 11, the district had called out a heating, ventilation and air conditioning specialist and they have requested a proposal to swap out their current MERV-9 filters.

Following winter break, students returned to two days of distance learning to allow for the re-entry testing of staff. The staff testing was provided on campus by UC San Diego Health on Jan. 4 and results were received within 24 to 48 hours, before students came back to campus.

Many families opted to keep their students in distance learning for the full week due to traveling, exposure to the virus or concerns with the surge—an additional 43 middle schoolers and 47 elementary students stayed home to learn.

A handful of students have also elected to return to distance learning at this time, which the district allowed: “We want to give people a choice if we can,” Tripi said.

In the elementary school, there are now 306 in-person learning students on campus and 35 in distance learning. In middle school, there are 192 in-person students and 21 in distance learning.

At the meeting, the board approved a return to distance learning for two days on Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 following the family week break to allow for staff testing.

With her public comments “wrapped in an envelope of love and appreciation,” parent Stacey Pennington said she she was grateful for all of the district’s efforts to keep school open and for the symptomatic testing that has been offered for students and staff through UC San Diego Health.

“As we look ahead to the next break of Ski Week, I urge the board to consider whatever alternatives there are to offer asymptomatic testing for students and teachers,” Pennington said, noting that the testing could help avert impacts on the broader school community.

After the winter break, 1,732 students and staff in neighboring Solana Beach School District participated in January asymptomatic re-entry testing, identifying six student cases and three teacher cases prior to the return to school. Solana Beach’s COVID dashboard listed 11 active student cases as of press time.

Pennington said she was appreciative of the district’s advisory Health and Hygiene committee and hoped they would be included on board agendas more frequently “as we continue to experience this very scary surge within our region.”

Faculty agreement proposed for childcare needs
In San Diego County, many school districts have temporarily re-closed their schools due to positive test results or because they lack enough staff to safely operate schools. This has created childcare hardships for some RSF staff members. In December, Rowe teachers expressed concerns about being forced to take unpaid leave due to their child’s school or childcare provider being closed, requesting that the district develop a plan that would be “more considerate” to the faculty and their families.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the federal program that requires schools to provide teachers with paid leave sick leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19, expired on Dec. 31.

Since last month, the district and the Rancho Santa Fe Faculty Association (RSFFA) have developed a side letter of agreement regarding childcare needs due to the pandemic. A public hearing for the initial proposal was held on Jan. 14: the initial side letter proposes an expansion of personal necessity leave, allowing teachers to use up to 10 days of accrued sick leave as personal necessity leave. This is in addition to the eight days of personal necessity leave and 10 sick days included in their contracts. The additional days will not carry over into the 2021-22 school year.

“The RSFFA recognizes that there is a substitute shortage in the county of San Diego and that it is difficult for the district to secure substitutes to cover unit members’ absences,” the letter states. “Unit members will make every effort to arrange for childcare in the event of a school or child care provider closure and will only utilize the personal necessity leave provided under this agreement as a last resort in the event no other alternative arrangement is available.”

During public comment, teacher Elaine Dolnack thanked the district for working to accommodate staff members with childcare hardships and expressed appreciation for the district’s attentiveness to staff’s safety concerns over the winter break.

“We’re really looking forward to forging a new relationship,” Dolnack said.

To address substitute teacher challenges and remain competitive with other districts, on Jan. 14 the board also voted to temporarily increase their substitute teacher day rate from $120 to $180. Rancho Santa Fe is part of a North County Coastal Substitute Consortium that includes Del Mar, Solana Beach, Cardiff and Encinitas School Districts.

Neighboring San Dieguito Union High School District had increased its daily substitute rate from $120 to $175 in November and to $250 in December.