I hope that this email finds you well and that you are settling into your new summer routine. For those of you who will be new to the Montecito Union School (MUS) Community in the 2020-2021 school year, welcome! I very much look forward to meeting you in person!
The purpose of this email is to give you an update on our ongoing planning for the fall. Please know that all of these plans are preliminary and subject to change as we get new information and/or orders from Santa Barbara Public Health (SBPH). Also, please know that this is an update, and not the detailed plan itself. After reading this email you may still have many questions. I certainly do! I thank you in advance for your patience as we continue to develop more detailed information that will be shared later this summer.
Our goal in this planning process has been to protect the health and safety of our students, staff members, and our community while maximizing students’ time on campus. We want to get students back to “in person” school for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, we want to do all that we can to provide for students’ academic success. I am proud of how we all worked together during MUSatHome (our distance learning model), and students benefited from our hard work. That said, most students did not receive the academic benefit they would have if they had attended school in person. Second, students need to engage with their peers in order to continue to progress socially and emotionally, and to be the happy and engaged kids we want them to be.
Our ThoughtExchange survey certainly showed that parents want the students back in school as well. 98% of parents said they would or were likely to send their children to “in-person” school, provided proper precautions and protocols were put in place. 92% of parents would choose “in-person” school over independent study, if given the choice. Therefore, getting 100% of students back to campus five days a week has been our goal, provided we could do that in a way that was compliant with the health orders and could provide for the safety of our learning community.
It’s not enough to simply bring students back to campus, however. We want to bring them back safely and have them feel safe as well. We want them to succeed at the highest levels academically, and also want to organize things in such a way as they can still have fun, be kids, and thrive emotionally and socially. It’s a big task, and together I am sure we can do it!
Preparing Multiple Plans
I think we would all love it if we had a certain future to prepare for, but I don’t have to tell you that things can change quickly with COVID-19. In order to ensure we are ready to start the year (and to make sure we can continue operations throughout the year, even if the health situation changes in our community) we have been making plans for five different scenarios based on five possible phases that would dictated by the orders of Santa Barbara Public Health (SBPH):
No health orders
Continued messaging about hygiene
No groups of a maximum number (for example, 50 or more people)
For MUS, this would mean restrictions in the auditorium, classrooms, etc.
Six feet of social distance
All rules from phase 2 apply
Rules about hygiene and cleaning
Mandates and/or recommendations about personal protective equipment (PPE)
All rules from Phase 3 apply
No groups of a maximum number (for example, 10 or more people)
For MUS, this would mean significant restrictions in the auditorium, classrooms, etc.
Stay at home order issued
All rules from phases 2, 3, and 4 still apply
For MUS, this would mean distance learning, and we would seek to build upon and improve our MUSatHome system
Focus on Phase 3
Based on the current SBPH order (attached), the California Public Health Interim Guidance for Schools (attached), and the current metrics in the county (available at https://publichealthsbc.org/
I am thrilled to report that (based on what we know now) we will be able to realize the goal to get 100% of the students back to campus every school day in a Phase 3 plan. To make this possible, there are many steps that we need to take as a community.
Lowering Class Sizes to Allow for Six Feet of Social Distance
One of the biggest moves we are making will be reallocating resources at the school in order to open up more classroom sections. This will allow us to more easily comply with the directive to maintain six feet of social distance, especially when indoors. Many of you shared the idea to open up more classes to lower student numbers with us in the recent survey, and one such idea that was shared generated a 4.0 out of 5.0 positive response rate. Teachers advocated for this as well after a design thinking challenge we held at school revealed how much better the learning and health environment is (in the time of COVID-19 social distancing) in classes with fewer students. While our original staffing plan called for 21 classes, we now plan to move forward with 25 classes. To add classes, we have assigned one teacher to a classroom that had not been assigned, and have reassigned three of our non-scheduled specialists to the classroom (our Multi Tiered Systems of Support teacher on special assignment, our technology teacher on special assignment, and our math specialist will all be reassigned to the classroom). We will be working to hire additional instructional assistants to help staff these classes up to our MUS standards. Moving forward with 25 classes allows us to significantly lower class sizes, and, though this may change as more students join the school, currently all classes are in the 12-16 student range. We plan to continue to offer math enrichment clubs and teams at school, and will be working to support our technology needs with non-teaching staff members.
By lowering class sizes, we can succeed in providing 6 feet of social distancing within the classroom. This change won’t be easy. To ensure that all students are in a “real” classroom, we are converting classrooms that were used for small group work into traditional homeroom classes. To provide for social distance in the classroom, it is necessary that all students have individual desks and work spaces. Many of our lower grade classes feature more flexible seating, such as larger tables that seat several students. While these are wonderfully conducive to collaboration when times are normal, this furniture does not easily allow for social distancing. So, we are purchasing approximately 200 new student desks for classes that did not have them in order to meet this moment. Thinking towards the future, we have selected desks with lockable wheels that can easily be reconfigured into larger group settings when the time is right.
By reallocating staff, adding staff, and purchasing furniture, we are putting many resources towards the goal of lowering class sizes in order to aid us in providing 6 feet of social distancing in every class, with 100% of students present.
Reorganizing Specialist Experiences to Maximize Safety
Students will still participate in PE, music, art, Spanish, and receive lessons from the teacher librarian. Students will continue to receive roughly the same amount of time in these areas throughout the year, but these specialist experiences will be organized differently. Though planning is ongoing, we are considering the location, scheduling, use of technology, and organization of these experiences throughout the year to maximize the safety of students and staff. It is not in everyone’s best interests for a single staff member to physically see 360 students during the course of a week, and careful planning is ongoing to ensure these enriching experiences can occur safely.
Ensuring Sick, Symptomatic, or Potentially Sick People Stay Home
We all need to work together to make sure students and staff members with symptoms of COVID-19 are not present at school. SBPH lists the following as possible symptoms of COVID-19: sore throat, runny nose, fever, chills, not feeling well, sneezing, coughing, gastro-intestinal symptoms (such as soft stool or stomach cramps), and a new loss of smell and/or taste. If your child has any of these symptoms, please, please, please keep them at home. As recommended by SBPH, we are also building protocols to ensure students and staff engage in daily, rigorous health screenings prior to entering our learning community. While details are still being worked out, the daily student health check will involve the visual check for symptoms, a temperature check, as well as some simple questions when appropriate. To prepare, we have ordered a large number of infrared (no-touch) thermometers and PPE, and will train staff members in the screening protocols. This will include training in how to always go about these procedures in a kind and supportive way that never puts negative attention on a student. School should be a warm and inviting place for all students.
If the daily health check presents a red flag, or if a student exhibits any of these symptoms throughout the school day, we will isolate the student. Again, we will do this kindly, and will make every attempt to not put negative attention on the student. We are so fortunate to have a full-time school nurse who will then assess the situation and make a determination if that student needs to head home. If this is the case, we will ask for you to get an “all clear” note from your doctor before returning to school.
Hygiene, Personal Protective Equipment, and Face Coverings
Handwashing or sanitization will be required before students come into class, before and after recess, before and after lunch, and whenever a student coughs, touches their face, etc. New handwashing stations (purchased by MUSF!) will come in handy to accomplish this, as well as lots of hand sanitizer throughout the campus.
Staff Members will use a combination of face coverings, face screens, and social distancing throughout the school day. They will be trained in the use of this equipment and the policies and procedures required as they work at school. Those that work in office settings that interact directly with the public will be separated with plexiglass, plastic, or similar materials. Our school nurse will have a range of protective equipment to protect her and the students she is serving.
One of the most difficult subjects has been the subject of face coverings for students. There is a variety of parental opinions on this subject. In our survey, the majority of parents advocated to not make face coverings mandatory for students. As an example, the statement “Students and staff should not have to wear masks” was rated 3.5 out of 5 with the largest number of respondents rating this statement a 5. That said, the second highest number of respondents rated this statement a 1, indicating strong disagreement. Clearly, there will be strong disagreement from some however we approach this important question, so it has become very important for us to follow the advice of our public health experts in this matter.
The California Public Health “Interim Guidance for Schools” says the following about face coverings for students:
Students should be encouraged to use cloth face coverings. Cloth face coverings are most essential in settings where physical distancing cannot easily be maintained, such as school buses or other settings where space may be insufficient.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) stated the following in their document, “CDC Activities and Initiatives Supporting the COVID-19 Response and the President’s Plan for Opening America Up Again:”
Face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school. Face coverings should be worn by staff and encouraged in students (particularly older students) if feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Information should be provided to staff and students on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings. Face coverings are not recommended for babies or children under the age of 2, or for anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance. Cloth face coverings are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected (many people carry COVID-19 but do not have symptoms).
The Santa Barbara County Public Health “Guidelines for Schools and School-based Programs” states:
Students should be encouraged to use cloth face coverings. Students and staff should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering.
We will be following the recommendations of California Public Health, the CDC, and SBPH and will be recommending students use cloth face coverings. We will provide cloth face coverings and will train students in the use and care of these. We will encourage students to wear the face coverings and to not touch them, especially when six feet of social distancing cannot easily be maintained.
Eliminating Non-essential Visitors to Campus
To further reduce person-to-person contact, we will be eliminating visitors, volunteers, and speakers coming to campus except in the case of emergencies or essential services. This includes parents coming to school. If you need to drop off a lunch or school materials, that business will be conducted through the intercom and through the open window at the front of the campus. We’ll try to make this as personal as possible given the limitations, but the safety of our students, staff members, and community will have to come first. I know that this will change the “start of school day” routines for many of us. For example, some families walk their child to the classroom door every day, which would not be possible under this new protocol. I wanted to give you plenty of notice that some of your family traditions may have to be adjusted temporarily in order to put the safety of our students, staff members, and community first.
We have purchased new sanitizing equipment for our learning areas. This includes “backpack” style sprayers that will be used nightly to disinfect every learning space. We will also make hand-held spraying solution available in each classroom and will train staff in its use. Rigorous cleaning schedules and protocols are being developed, and new cleaning solutions are being purchased. Please note that schools must follow a rigorous set of laws to ensure these cleaning solutions are safe for students and the environment. We are also rethinking how students use and interact with learning materials in order to prevent cross-contamination, because even though the main method of spreading this disease is from the droplets that leave our noses and mouths, surfaces can be a vector. Learning materials that were previously shared will be organized for individual use, and materials that must be shared will be cleaned between uses.
Utilizing Outdoor Areas and Increasing Circulation of Air
We are making plans to maximize our use of the many, beautiful outdoor areas on our campus. We are adding some additional shaded areas, and have asked teachers to implement even more outdoor learning into their unit plans. We are also getting ready to more fully utilize the Nature Lab (the property to our immediate south) and are hoping to complete some demolition and access upgrades by the start of the school year to allow more instruction outdoors on this part of our property. When indoors, we will ask that (weather permitting) doors and windows be open to allow for increased circulation of air in inside spaces.
To allow students to eat outside safely, we are planning for an additional lunch period (moving from three lunch periods to four) and different physical separation during lunches and recess periods. We want to do this in a way where kids will still have fun, be kids, and feel welcomed and not threatened by the school environment. Will recess and physical education still occur outside? Absolutely. We’re working on new practices and protocols to do this safely. Stay tuned for those details.
Independent Study and Home Hospital Teaching for Students Who Must Be Excluded from In-Person School
We are using every available staff person to make our “100% of the students back to campus every school day” a reality. As a result, we will not be able to simultaneously deliver MUSatHome-type instruction (with live Zoom lessons) for students that need to stay home while also delivering instruction to the vast majority of students on campus. If a student needs to stay home for a few weeks because of symptoms, exposure to COVID-19, or contracting the illness, they will have an opportunity to learn through an independent study plan (see http://www.gamutonline.net/
To reiterate, our plans will continue to evolve and change as we get more information and build out our plans. This email is intended as an update, and not a formal plan.
While most of this email has been about the logistics, policies, and procedures, all of us are 100% committed to making MUS a warm, child-centered, friendly, inviting place in the time of COVID-19. Students will be celebrated when they follow these new procedures, and will not be ostracized when they need a reminder. We know that a student may need a reminder to stay 6 feet distant. We realize that a 5 year-old may forget social distancing and try to hug their teacher. We realize that a student may touch their face and forget to wash their hands. When this happens, our reminders will be supportive, encouraging, and done with love.
I am excited that, based on current conditions, we will get 100% of kids back to school every school day. Other districts will not be so fortunate. Imagine a school with 32 kids per class. 6 feet of social distance is not possible with so many bodies. Schools around us may adopt an A/B schedule for students not because they lack imagination or drive, but because their funding level doesn’t allow them to do so. While there are many challenges in front of us, I am so grateful my daughter attends MUS, so thrilled that all of our students will be able to be so well-served next year, and so thankful that you will all be a part of making this plan successful.
To that end, please keep looking in your emails for several calls to action. We have a busy summer ahead, and may need to call in some parent volunteers to make this all happen in time. Thanks in advance for answering those calls, and for your continued patience as we build out the details of this evolving plan. In fact, here’s the first call to action: please consider getting tested for COVID-19. There are now ample tests available in our county, and as some who carry the disease are asymptomatic, testing will be an important tool moving forward. Go to https://publichealthsbc.org/
We are Montecito Union School. We are Mustangs standing tall. Together, we can make for a fantastically successful 2020-2021 school year!