Waivers pave way for some Santa Clara County schools to open
Back-to-school attire at Sunnyvale Christian School includes masks. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Although distance learning is the new educational normal for Santa Clara County, some public schools and one private school have received waivers for in-person learning.

Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered distance learning for counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list but schools could resume in-person learning if their county had been off the watch list for 14 consecutive days. Under that order, in Santa Clara County middle and high schools must remain closed.

However, elementary schools can open “subject to approval by the local health officer of a waiver application,” according to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. 

The department received 62 applications for waivers and granted five.

Sunnyvale Christian School and Moreland School District, which serves pre-kindergarten to 8th-grade students across three cities in Santa Clara County, including San Jose, were the first to receive waivers. Campbell Union School District, Creekside School and Luther Burbank School District received their waivers Aug. 31. 

Moreland was approved Aug. 18 for in-person instruction for students with disabilities and those requiring distance learning support, as well as children of essential workers. The school, however, had to delay in-person learning because of poor air quality following a wave of wildfires.

Mary Kay Going, Moreland superintendent, said she requested a waiver because students who struggled to engage through distance learning in the spring needed more support and structure.

“Some students thrive through distance learning,” Going said, “and others need the classroom environment and structure to support the routine of school to fully engage in learning.”

The district plans to start with two groups of 12 students on each of its six campuses for a total of 144 students.

“The challenge that all our students face,” said Going, “is missing the joy that attending school brings. School for children is much more than academics. It provides social and emotional support, relationship building, extracurricular activities and other positive relationships with caring adults.”

“The kids have a new appreciation for school,” said Sunnyvale Christian School teacher Edme Hernandez (pictured with her daughter Melody). Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

Sunnyvale Christian School reopened Aug. 27, making it the first Santa Clara County school to offer in-person learning following the pandemic. Almost all of the 57 elementary school students — representing about half of the school enrollment — who returned wore masks.

“The kids have a new appreciation for school,” said kindergarten teacher Edme Hernandez, whose daughter Melody is a third-grader at the school.

Sunnyvale Christian’s academic year began with distance learning but the school was eager to start classroom instruction. Like many other county schools and school districts, it had submitted an application for a waiver to the health department. The health department provides guidance to schools and school districts on adjusting their plans for approval.

At Sunnyvale Christian, teachers are excited to teach students in person, Hernandez said, but in addition to maintaining safety protocols, they have to ease children’s anxiety. One child asked her if the coronavirus was gone. She told him it wasn’t but they were taking safety precautions to make sure he and the school were germ-free.

“We really try to ease their hearts and tell them that they’re safe,” Hernandez said. “We want to make sure they’re still enjoying their childhood and learning.”

Sunnyvale Christian School Principal Pastor John Christie said the school is “in-sync with Santa Clara County’s strict protocols.”

“We prioritize the children’s health above all else,” Christie said.

When students arrive, they have their temperature checked at the school entrance before getting out of the car. Drop-off times are staggered to allow students to pass through the school’s gates individually. The first thing they do is wash their hands with soap and water.

Students and staff wash their hands often and are mindful of social distancing. In outside school corridors, children line up on circles on the ground placed 6 feet apart.

In the classroom, desks are 6 feet apart. Students in third- through fifth-grade wear masks throughout the day, as do second graders in the second/third grade combo class. Students spend 42% of their day outdoors, including eating lunch and subject learning.

“We’re cognizant of everything we need to do,” said Sunnyvale Christian School Vice Principal Margo Dickson.

In addition to the safety measures the school has taken, Dickson said parents’ concerns for the emotional health of their children “trumped any fears they were having about the coronavirus.”

Anna Pond said her daughters, who are third and sixth graders at the school, couldn’t wait to see their friends and were missing interacting with classmates. Pond said she feels comfortable with the safety protocols the school has taken.

“They’re cleaning the classrooms and social distancing,” Pond said. “I’m glad we’re moving forward and it’s working.”

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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