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Safely Back to School: San Diego schools share success stories of reopening during pandemic

Officials offer advice on how to reopen
Posted at 6:09 AM, Apr 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-16 09:52:09-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Since September, nearly every student at St. Katharine Drexel Academy has been on campus, as the school has held in-person learning five days a week.

Principal Kelly Bonde says it took a major effort to make that happen.

"Every single classroom but one was moved across campus," Bonde explains. "We had to take out all of the furniture in the classrooms and replace it with different furniture to keep every kid six feet apart. So it was quite challenging."

Keeping the school open during an ongoing coronavirus pandemic is just as challenging.

Bonde says creative scheduling has been the most essential and effective tool to minimizing risk. Every grade is kept isolated from the others, in class, on the playground, and while eating.

That way, when a positive COVID case came up, only one grade would be affected.

"We designed a schedule that accounted for space and timing so that all groups had separate play space and sanitized eating space outside," says Bonde. "And we were able to not compromise their learning time."

Meanwhile, getting families and teachers to buy into new rules for health and safety took constant, consistent communication.

"In pre-pandemic times, I would probably send a newsletter to families every two weeks," Bonde says. "Once the pandemic hit, it was twice a week. Now it's once a week. But that communication is key."

The extra work has paid off. Bonde told ABC 10News that her school has had zero cases of COVID transmission on-campus.

And, she adds, after eight months of in-person learning, school is starting to feel "normal" again.

"Getting to see the kids still learning, still laughing, still playing; safe, healthy, and happy kids is to be the best measure of success."

Across town, schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District see a similar measure of success.

Cajon Valley reopened schools for in-person learning in September as well. They had one advantage, says Assistant Superintendent Scott Buxbaum: Cajon Valley used school campuses as daycare centers for essential workers last summer. That gave them practice at having kids on campus.

"Being open is a challenge," says Buxbaum. "It's just a constant evolution as we've moved over the last year and a half and making sure everybody stays safe but also making sure that the services that you provide are as good as possible."

When Cajon Valley transitioned into full-time school this fall, Buxbaum says his district decided they would not take "No" for an answer.

"We were pushing back against agencies to say give our kids the opportunities to get things that they shouldn't have to miss out on," says Buxbaum.

That included field trips. Crest School in La Cresta was the first in the state to take students to a state park after reopening.

Now, the school takes kids off campus twice each week. Principal Sabrina Copeland says it gives the kids learning enrichment, as well as emotional relief.

"It's been really, really awesome," Copeland says. "It gives them something to look forward to and helps them with their mental health since we've been closed down as a county."

On-campus at Crest, all the usual safety guidelines are in place, including handwashing, masks, social distance, and separate entrances for grade groups.

To date, Crest School has not reported a case of on-campus transmission. Interruptions because of positive cases have been minimal.

"Our kids are happy," says Copeland. "They're thriving, and it feels like regular school, just with extra precautions in place."

Other schools and districts have toured Cajon Valley to learn how to reopen. Copeland says it all comes back to putting kids first and focusing on their emotional development.

She and Bonde both hope that focus continues after restrictions end.

"Some of these things we've learned through the pandemic have made us better educators," says Bonde. "I think that's a
really good thing."