(Left to right) Freshmen Elijah Jackson, Andrew Klieger, Derek Taylor, Caleb Shin and Rachel Pirie have lunch socially distanced on the back field.(Photo by Vanessa Escobar)

BREAKING NEWS: After weeks with hybrid schedule, school temporarily returns to remote learning

Country Day has suspended its hybrid schedule through Dec. 11, which is two school weeks after the end of the Thanksgiving Break. Head of School Lee Thomsen announced the change in a Nov. 19 email to Country Day families.

For the final week before the Winter Break, starting Dec. 14, high school, middle school and lower school will return to their hybrid schedules. Pre-k families were contacted separately about their schedule.

In addition, students and faculty will only be able to return to campus if they receive a negative COVID-19 test. The school is offering testing on Wednesday, December 2. Anyone who wishes to use the school sponsored testing must sign up by Nov. 26 through this website.

The return to remote learning follows five weeks of the hybrid schedule in the high school and middle school. Lower school students were on campus for seven to eight weeks, depending on the grade. Pre-K began the year in person.

During the hybrid period, a third grader tested positive for COVID-19. Thomsen notified the school of this positive result in a Nov. 17 email which said the known date of exposure was Nov. 10.

History of hybrid learning

On Sept. 29, Sacramento County finally moved from the purple to red tier on the COVID-19 county watchlist. Middle school students returned to campus on Oct. 20 for the first time in more than seven months. High school students began their classes on campus the following day.

With masks donned and desks spaced six feet apart, students were back — part-time. The middle and high school adopted hybrid schedules with cohorts, alternating between in-person learning and attending classes on Zoom.

On Nov. 10, the county returned to the purple tier. But, in an email written to Country Day families by Head of School Lee Thomsen, he said the change “does not affect our ability to host in-person classes and we will continue to operate under our current schedules.”

Senior Nate Leavy was glad to be back on campus.

“It gives students a chance to engage with academics,” he said. “Over Zoom, it’s much more tempting to phone it in, but when you’re at school, you can participate in class in a much more active way.”

Leavy said he can tell being back on campus during the pandemic puts a lot of stress on teachers, but he thinks the high school has done well at ensuring a safe return.

“It’s easy to see that the faculty and staff are doing absolutely everything in their power to keep us safe, and it’s paying off,” he said.

The high school was split into two groups: Cohort A and Cohort B. Each cohort spends two days on campus every week. While one cohort is learning in person, the other attends classes through Zoom. During five-day weeks, cohorts alternate in-person learning on Fridays. Only two five-day weeks are scheduled before the two-week Winter Break which begins on Dec.19.

In middle school, seventh and eighth grades meet three days a week. Sixth grade meets four. Students have asynchronous class time and Zoom faculty office hours on off days, said Head of Middle School Rommel Loria.

In both the middle and high school, some students opted to stay completely remote.

The high school began gathering personal protective equipment (PPE) in April shortly after the initial lockdown, said Jay Holman, director of the physical plant. In late April, the maintenance team was back on campus preparing classrooms for in-person learning.

“We consulted with our local health department, doctors and peer schools and created procedures and protocols to allow for the safe return of employees and students,” Holman said.

One of these protocols includes keeping doors and windows open during classes.

The school installed MERV 13 air filters and, most notably, purchased 60 HEPA air purifiers, which have six speed settings. The highest is capable of completely exchanging the air in the room approximately six times per hour, Holman said.

In addition, plexiglass surrounds teacher desks, and student workspaces are wiped down between classes.

From an administrative standpoint, Head of High School Brooke Wells said the schedule, including the balancing of cohorts and adjusting for international and fully remote students, was a challenge.

The schedule was designed to keep the number of students in each class down while avoiding situations where just one or two people would be in class while many were on Zoom, or vice versa.

A major change to the schedule was moving electives from after lunch to the first period of the day. This was done to stagger the students coming to campus, Wells said.

Students who do not have an elective do not come to campus until their first class.

Students arrive on campus anytime between 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. The large time window means only a few students arrive at any given time, Wells said.

Prior to arriving on campus parents use a website called PickUp Patrol to log their children’s health status to report any COVID-19 symptoms, such as a sore throat, uncontrolled cough or fever above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit. When they step on campus, students have their temperatures taken before they head to class.

The middle school check-in process functions similarly. The only notable difference is that middle school students have a regular academic class first period, meaning there is a smaller time slot in which students arrive.

Despite a shorter drop-off window, Loria said the process is efficient.

Should a student in either middle or high school test positive, the school will defer to the county. They will contact the Department of Health and contact tracing will begin.

In his email, Thomsen wrote the county will determine whether a school closure would be necessary.

In the high school, contact tracing is more complex because students of different grade levels often share classes. Wells said the two cohorts in the high school divide students and limit people on campus, but they are technically different from what he refers to as a “stable cohort.” 

In lower school students if one student tests positive, that student’s entire cohort is quarantined. But this is not the case in the high school.

“If you test positive, we consider your cohort to be the people within six feet of you in all of your classes,” Wells said.

The student who tests positive will quarantine. Every student in the positive-testing student’s direct cohort (within six feet in any class, or judged as a contact by the county) will be notified and required to quarantine, Wells said.

Contacts are not limited to only in-class interactions.

In addition, students who are not considered a contact but were in the same room as a positive case will be alerted of the situation.

Recommended or required quarantine notices will come via an email from the school, pre-formatted by the county.

Teachers in each class have a seating chart that will be used to help the county’s contact tracing to figure out which students are at risk.

If a teacher tests positive, the same general policy applies as if a student tested positive.

Wells said the county ultimately will decide which students are at risk. If students are on the opposite side of the room from someone who tests positive, it is not guaranteed the county would consider them at risk of exposure. The county determines who is at risk based on factors such as mask-wearing, distance between a positive case and potential contact, whether or not air purifiers were running and at what speed and whether or not doors and windows were open.

“We’ll err on the side of caution,” Wells said.

The middle school also would defer to the county, although cohorts in the middle school are slightly more stable than high school cohorts.

Students are divided based on their advisory. Depending on a student’s group, each student will have four or more of their six classes with the same students, Loria said.

High school science teacher Kellie Whited said her classes are structured relatively similar to the way they were when students were completely remote. The hybrid schedule, which allows more class time, has helped her catch up in classes that were behind. Right now, all her classes are on pace, she said.

A major challenge as a science teacher is conducting labs. 

“Due to the number of students who are entirely remote and the limitations of the current COVID safety protocols, this has made in-person labs far more difficult than I anticipated,” Whited said.

She has converted as many labs as possible to a format that allows remote students to participate. For some of her classes she has provided kits so students can do the labs from home.

Whited’s biology and AP Biology classes meet four times a week — twice in-person and twice on Zoom. Occasionally, if the schedule allows for it, her Anatomy and Physiology students will have a day off Zoom and will complete their work asynchronously.

“I try and give them a screen-free day as often as I can,” she said.

Although she worries about exposure to the virus, Whited said the school leaders have  done “everything in their power” to follow COVID-19 protocols and keep everyone safe, enough so that she feels comfortable on campus.

“I am so proud of my colleagues and how hard we all have worked to adjust to online learning and now hybrid learning without sacrificing the quality of the students’ education,” Whited said.

Both Wells and Loria said they were happy with the way the return to campus has gone.

“We were tentative at first, and we were just making sure that we were being as careful as possible,” Loria said of the middle school’s approach to the return.

Loria said the middle school was staffed appropriately to ensure everything ran smoothly, and he credited everyone’s hard work for making everything possible.

Leavy said his favorite thing about being back on campus is the casual interactions with peers.

“I didn’t realize how much I missed things like seeing something funny across the quad and looking at a friend because you know you both saw it and laughing together,” he said. “It gives me a lot of hope when things feel relatively normal. It feels like Country Day again.”

— By Ethan Monasa

Originally published in the Nov. 17 edition of the Octagon. Updated on Nov. 19.