Safely, collaboratively opening schools in Larkspur-Corte Madera

By Jill Sellers and Brett Geithman

Amid the swirl of politicized rhetoric around the return to site-based instruction during the coronavirus pandemic, the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District began its journey back to in-person learning nearly simultaneous to our immediate roll out of distance learning in mid-March.

We are the first public school district in Marin to open our doors five days a week to every enrolled student in our community. We have been asked by many exactly how we got here.

We were driven forward by our district’s stated focus on equity and the long-established role of public schools as critical to leveling the playing field for all children to improve outcomes for society as a whole. Dovetail to this vision is significant data pointing to increased academic success of learning in person. We know that kids and our community benefit from socially and emotionally healthy children. Research overwhelmingly supports in-person instruction to grow such skills.

Through this nearly seven-month process our administration and board worked with several principles. First and foremost in every single decision, we followed science. As educators and trustees we are not public health experts. Marin County has extremely accessible and collaborative public health officials and therefore we have not had to insert our own personal bias into what is considered safe or acceptable.

We relied heavily on this strong partnership when often opposing pressures from many constituents weighed heavily on our minds and our inboxes.

With science as our guide, our second principle was to seek shared interests with all stakeholders while bringing those conversations back to our core purpose: educating and supporting children. We engaged staff and members of our community in committees around budget. With that we made decisions that were humane in this midst of this crisis.

We engaged parents in surveys and open conversations surrounding effectiveness of current distance education and comfort with various learning modalities, all while collecting specific concerns that would need to be addressed as we moved to open schools.

We relied on our excellent teachers to guide our distance-learning committee to improve that modality while other groups simultaneously worked on the very challenging logistics of getting kids safely back to classrooms.

Though these conversations could be hard, they gave a wide variety of invested individuals an opportunity to be part of both the short term (distance) and long term (in-person) learning plan. They gave the administration valuable guidance and feedback allowing us to see where our most significant challenges lay.

Our third principle was simply to communicate regularly, both broadly and personally. For all humans, anxiety and stress are fueled by speculation, uncertainty and lack of control.

As a governance team we have dedicated time at every board meeting to COVID-19 updates. This ensured all stakeholders were working with an accurate and updated set of common information. Whether related to distance learning or the long-range process of returning to site-based instruction, we published all information — including survey results and union agreements — to our entire community promptly and widely. And all of the many letters to the board and superintendent were well considered and responded to in a personalized and detailed manner.

This investment of time allowed our community to develop mutual understanding in this unique moment in our history.

Scientifically driven, seeking shared interest always and communicating early and often allowed us to then collaboratively arrive at agreements with our two unions that best served students while addressing the very real health and safety issues that large school environments present.

Early in the pandemic we began ordering personal protection equipment, plexiglass barriers and air filters, while reorganizing classroom spaces to accommodate students and teachers with public health directed distancing guidelines. With these early orders on hand by September, we had all safety gear necessary to open schools.

And so our community celebrated, often with great emotion, as children returned to classrooms at all three district schools Oct. 5.

By getting children back to school we are addressing our core values around equity and supporting academic growth and social-emotional health. We know the barriers to opening schools are great but the process is critical both to society and the children and staff in our classrooms.

Jill Sellers is Larkspur-Corte Madera School District Board president. Brett Geithman is superintendent of the district.