5 La Jolla private schools get county waiver approval to reopen

Gillispie School in La Jolla is one of several schools to have a waiver approved by the county to reopen.
Gillispie School in La Jolla is one of several schools to have a waiver approved by the county to reopen in-person instruction for elementary grades.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Gillispie, La Jolla Country Day, San Diego French American, The Bishop’s and The Evans schools in La Jolla are among 27 San Diego County schools to get county approval to reopen in-person instruction for elementary grades, having obtained waivers from the state school closure mandate prompted by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

All the schools approved so far are private, except for one school district, the small Rancho Santa Fe district.

La Jolla’s Stella Maris Academy, The Children’s School and All Hallows Academy also are on the list of 98 waiver applications the county had received as of Aug. 20, though they weren’t on approval lists issued by that day.

Schools can apply for waivers to open for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade. Each waiver takes five business days to be reviewed by the county and state for a variety of criteria, such as current county COVID-19 data and whether the school consulted with parents, community members and staff.

The waivers may not matter so much, however, if San Diego County maintains its progress at lowering its coronavirus case rate.

All public and private schools in a county are allowed to 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.

San Diego County was removed from the watch list Aug. 18, starting a 14-day waiting period before all K-12 schools can resume in-person instruction.

State rules say that schools granted waivers can’t reopen until at least two weeks after the date they applied for a waiver. The county received its first waiver applications early last week.

Many schools will require masks only for third-graders and older, which state guidance allows. A few schools, including Gillispie and La Jolla Country Day, will require masks for all students.

La Jolla Country Day School is planning a phased reopening, starting with kindergarten and first grade in mid-September, Head of School Gary Krahn said Aug. 20.

“We will allow for a few days of reflection and refinement before welcoming another grade or two on campus,” he said. “The gradual increase in the density of students and faculty on campus will allow us to adapt and enhance our safety policies and protocols accordingly. It also ensures that students have time to adjust to new protocols and expectations.”

La Jolla Country Day’s waiver application stated 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 Bishop's School in La Jolla
The Bishop’s School’s application for a waiver to open its sixth-grade classes for in-person instruction was approved by the county.

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

Assistant Head of School Michael Beamer said Bishop’s is working on a plan to welcome students in person. Instruction began online Aug. 18, and Beamer said “the waiver gives us some flexibility in terms of when we can have students on campus. We will continue to assess our on-campus preparations and the school will work with families, teachers and support staff to set a phased approach to bring our students back for in-person learning.”

Beamer said “all students at Bishop’s, even when we are permitted to have in-person instruction, will continue to have an option to learn from home.”

San Diego French American’s head of school, Mark Rosenblum, said he is “cautiously thrilled” about the school’s waiver approval and is “relieved that the immense amount of work since mid-March — researching, consulting and planning — have led us to this point.”

San Diego French American has “completely renovated our campus to accommodate for comfortable physical distancing for all enrolled students ... increasing indoor and outdoor space by 20 percent for our community,” Rosenblum said.

The first day of school for SDFAS is Friday, Aug. 28, with its seventh- and eighth-graders staying online for now. Once students are welcomed back to campus, they will have the option to remain online, Rosenblum said, and the school has “devised schedules that let families choose where they want to learn from and to move back and forth between formats throughout the year.”

Gillispie School did not respond to the La Jolla Light’s request for comment. But Head of School Alison Fleming said in a statement before the county’s approval announcement 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.

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. Gillispie will aim to test its staff every week for the coronavirus.

“If Gillispie is not able to open in person on Sept. 1 because of ... 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 Evans School declined to comment.

At Stella Maris Academy, which is still waiting for news about its waiver application, Principal Francie Moss said the application process was “time-consuming but was a great way to revisit our reopening plan and make additions and changes wherever necessary.”

A third-grade classroom at Stella Maris Academy illustrates the La Jolla school's plans for reopening in-person classes.
A third-grade classroom at Stella Maris Academy illustrates the La Jolla private school’s preparations for reopening in-person classes for elementary grades if the county grants approval for the school’s waiver application.

“The entire process was definitely a testimony to all that we have put into place to make our campus as safe as possible for our staff and students to return to,” Moss said.

The Children’s School also is “anxiously awaiting a formal response,” said Head of School John Fowler.

All Hallows Academy Principal Mary Skeen said: “I believe that in-person instruction at this time for children, meeting their social and emotional needs, is extremely important. We are in strict compliance with all the regulations put forth by the California Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control. [The waiver application] is confirmation of that.”

All Hallows’ scheduled first day of school is Wednesday, Aug. 26, and is currently set for virtual learning for all its kindergartners through eighth-graders. Skeen did not disclose when she hoped to be able to welcome students through sixth grade in person should the school’s waiver be approved.

To view schools’ approved waiver applications and reopening plans, visit the county’s COVID-19 K-12 website. ◆