3 La Jolla private schools apply for waivers to reopen elementary classes in person

The Bishop's School is one of three schools in La Jolla that applied for a county waiver to reopen.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Three private schools in La Jolla have applied to the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency for a waiver to reopen elementary grades for in-person classes in the wake of state-mandated closures.

Gillispie School, La Jolla Country Day School and The Bishop’s School are on a list of 48 schools that had applied for the waiver as of Aug. 13. The waiver would allow the schools to reopen for in-person instruction in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade, despite state regulations announced in July that all schools in counties on the state’s COVID-19 watch list, including San Diego County, must remain closed until their county gets off the watch list for two consecutive weeks.

Studies have suggested that younger children are less likely to transmit and fall ill from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and the state later allowed elementary schools to apply for waivers through their counties. Middle and high schools don’t qualify.

The waiver application contains questions asking applicants to detail labor, parent and community organizations that were consulted and asking them to confirm reopening and coronavirus prevention plans, including information about physical distancing, face coverings, staff training and triggers for returning to online or other distance learning.

Each waiver application will take five business days to be reviewed by the county and state for a variety of criteria, including current county coronavirus data. The earliest a school can reopen, if the county approves the waiver, is two weeks after it applies.

Once a waiver application is approved, the county will post both the application and reopening plan for that school, according to Sarah Sweeney, communications officer for the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency.

“Thanks to the remarkable efforts of our academic and operations team, we are prepared to reopen school safely,” La Jolla Country Day Head of School Gary Krahn told the La Jolla Light on Aug. 14.

La Jolla Country Day’s waiver application states the school has “built indoor and outdoor classrooms in which students will be no more than 25 minutes indoors and then they will move to their outdoor learning environment.”

LJCDS said it also will make available several materials to aid in healthy hygiene practices, such as “soap and water, disposable wipes, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent ethyl alcohol, or other effective disinfectant as well as tissues, paper towels and no-touch trash cans near each entrance of any school building or facility, at each COVID-19 symptom screening location, in school vehicles and in other appropriate areas on campus for use by students, employees and visitors for hand-washing.”

The first day of school for LJCDS is set for Wednesday, Aug. 19, online, with an anticipated in-person start date of Sept. 9 if the waiver application is approved.

Gillispie Head of School Alison Fleming said in a statement that “as part of the waiver process, the school has developed a COVID-19 prevention plan which follows the practices recommended by the California Department of Public Health, the California Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the San Diego County Health & Human Services Agency.”

Fleming said a task force composed of administrators, trustees, parents and teachers developed a plan that “outlines the thorough and rigorous steps Gillispie is taking to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus,” including reduced class sizes, increased physical distancing and staggered scheduling.

Mask requirements, daily health screenings, enhanced hygiene protocols and “access to cross-ventilation with operable windows, upgraded HVAC systems along with access to outdoor learning spaces” also are among the details in the plan.

“If Gillispie is not able to open in person on Sept. 1 because of a delay in the waiver or negative trends of local epidemiological data and health care capacity changes, we will open the year online,” Fleming said. “Our greatest concern is operating in a manner that is in the best interest of our faculty, staff and students’ health and safety.”

The Bishop’s School, which serves students in grades six through 12, applied for the waiver for its sixth-graders only.

“Our sixth grade is our smallest,” said Assistant Head of School Michael Beamer. “There are only 62 students in the grade this year. For us, it’s a more straightforward process to imagine bringing the smallest class on campus a little earlier than other students would be allowed.”

“Most of what was in the application, we had already addressed with our opening plan,” Beamer added, noting strict adherence to distancing and disinfection policies.

Bishop’s first day of school is Tuesday, Aug. 18. Beamer said he isn’t sure when sixth-graders would go on campus if the waiver is approved.

“There are a lot of moving parts to it,” he said.

All public and private schools in a county can reopen if the county gets off the state’s COVID-19 watch list and keeps its case rate at or below 100 per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks.

On Aug. 13, San Diego County recorded its second consecutive day with a case rate below 100. One more day and the region should fall off the watch list.

San Diego Union-Tribune staff writers Kristen Taketa and Paul Sisson contributed to this report.