On Friday, Aug. 28, Governor Gavin Newsom announced changes to the state’s reopening plan, which affects when and how schools can bring students back for in-person learning. Find more info on OLM’s reopening plans here.
On Aug. 25, Los Angeles County hit 197.5 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents—which was cause for a small celebration in the Our Lady of Malibu School offices. For the past few weeks, staff at the local Catholic school have waited to see whether the case rate would drop below 200. That’s the number the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (following the state’s lead) had set as the threshold to pass before considering opening the in-person waiver application, which would allow schools to bring students back into classrooms. LA County Public Health said in a statement Tuesday that it was “heartened by the case rates falling below 200” and was “working to assess the new guidance issued … by the CDPH [California Department of Public Health] to determine what additional adjustments may be needed before opening up the waiver process.”
The waiver process has two steps: first, a completed application involving letters from the district superintendent or equivalent, local unions and community and parent organizations, and completed checklists outlining the school’s reopening plan; then, a public health review of the applicant school’s protocols, which will take into account such things as equipment availability, outbreak response plans, local epidemiological data, and hospital and testing resources.
If LA County averages below 200 cases per 100,000 residents for two weeks, i.e., until Sept. 8, the school can return in-person without needing a waiver, according to the CDPH.
If there are hiccups, OLM Principal Michael Smith said he can start the school year one week later, either adding school days to the end of the year in June or having a shorter Thanksgiving break to accommodate the extra week.
News outlets have reported that private schools from Colorado to Chicago have seen boosted enrollments from public school students who think in-person learning is worth tuition—OLM’s tuition costs more than $13,000. Parochial schools also do not have to contend with teachers’ unions, nor are they funded by the government.
OLM’s enrollment dropped after the Woolsey Fire, which saw about 12 to 14 families—which represented about 30 children overall, Smith estimated—relocate to other schools. Post-Woolsey, OLM leaned into their mantra that “small class sizes equal big results.”
OLM capped all classes at only 12 students.
On a broader scale, “the pandemic has definitely impacted enrollment in Catholic Schools in the Archdiocese,” Adrian M. Alarcon, an Archdiocese of Los Angeles representative, said. “It is still early in the school year and we do not have an accurate enrollment count across all schools.” However, Alarcon did share that the entire archdiocese had suffered a 40 percent decrease in operating funds due to the pandemic.
The 265 schools in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties under the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ jurisdiction will begin the year with distance-learning, Alarcon said, but the archdiocese will support those communities that could meet the state-defined protocols for in-person learning.
The archdiocese cannot apply for a blanket waiver for all elementary schools; each school must apply individually. However, the archdiocese will review, approve and submit prospective waiver applications on behalf of archdiocesan schools.
OLM’s enrollment numbers have gone up since their lowpoint post-Woolsey. Smith concedes that this might be because of the in-person option OLM can provide that a public school cannot, but also believes that this is because of the strength of the program OLM provides.
“We have a perfect scenario over here,” OLM Office Administrator Lisa Hall said, describing how the school has “ample outdoor space” and “no interior hallways.” OLM plans to hold some classes outside, including some dedicated specifically to helping students visualize what six feet of distance really looks like. Smith felt confident even his kindergarteners could socially distance, especially after they build the behavior into the curriculum.
The school also has plans for uniform masks and other PPE—personal protective equipment—and will take students’ temperatures daily.
Earlier this year, two of the older OLM teachers decided to retire. Their spots have been filled by teachers such as Candy Wallace, the new seventh grade teacher. Wallace moved from a previous school where she felt concerned about her coronavirus exposure. Now at OLM, she feels “more comfortable than [she’s] ever felt.”
Also earlier this year, the school created a coronavirus task force composed of doctors, scientists and other experts to develop their back-to-school strategy. One such expert is Jennifer Johnston-Jones, a clinical psychologist who has worked “extensively” with Our Lady of Malibu staff for the past three years to credential them in a trauma-informed, evidence-based teaching program after the Woolsey Fire.
“Unfortunately, Woolsey helped us get ready for COVID,” she said. Because the teachers have had this training, “the kids at OLM are coming into a place that can really help provide an emotional safety net for them” during the pandemic.
Smith is crossing his fingers for the next two weeks: “Truthfully, the only thing that can screw us up would be an outbreak caused by a few knuckleheads who decide to get all hopped up and have a great Labor Day … And then we end up paying for that.”
If the school is forced to close, OLM has an online program “ready to implement,” Smith said.
Ventura County opened its waiver application on Wednesday, Aug. 19, according to CBS. Last week, health officials granted 30 waivers to elementary schools in Orange County, according to the LA Times. Orange and Ventura counties cleared the 200 case rate threshold a few days before Los Angeles County.