Palm Valley School in Rancho Mirage will be the first school in the Coachella Valley to reopen to students and faculty for in-person learning at its “lower school” when the doors open Sept. 8, the day after Labor Day.
Riverside County and California health officials approved the reopening Thursday, for kindergarten through sixth grade. Palm Valley School began the 2020-21 school year Wednesday with virtual learning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The head of the school, Dr. Steven Sherman, said that the school is looking forward to having students and faculty back on campus, with full implementation of safety recommendations from California Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said that leadership at the school does not want to reopen recklessly and will do it “with integrity and with thought.”
“We didn’t want to rush to it,” Sherman said, citing the 11 days the school has to prepare for the reopen. “We want to make sure we’re doing it with diligence and with intentionality and give our teachers time and our families time to adjust, make schedules. We’re not blindly rushing forward, but we do believe that we do our best work in close proximity to kids, and so we’re excited to be able to do that.”
The school, a grade K-12 institution, announced on its website that sixth graders will continue online learning “as staff conflicts prohibit us from re-opening our middle school to sixth graders.” The school expects to have between 75-95 students on its 40-acre campus.
With the reopening, students at Palm Valley School who are permitted to return to campus will have the option to continue distance learning, if their family prefers.
“No matter how we feel about it as a school,” Sherman said, “there are some families that still want to remain distanced, so we’re offering a HyFlex learning platform that allows synchronized classroom instruction. So, wherever they get wifi, they can electronically enter the classroom and get the instruction from the teacher.”
Sherman said that the HyFlex platform will remain in place for students even after California approves a full return for middle school and high school, and Sherman noted that it could be an innovative part of education in the future. It will allow students to be out of town with their families and still stay on top of their schoolwork.
For in-person learning, Palm Valley School is uniquely equipped to handle a return amid the pandemic because of its vast campus and manageable student-body size, in addition to keeping students with the same group of classmates throughout the day. Each classroom also has an exterior door, which would ideally help prevent hallways from crowding.
All other schools in the Coachella Valley remain closed to in-person learning and have begun the school year with virtual, online learning. As Riverside County remains on the coronavirus watch list for those with a higher number of coronavirus cases, schools must apply for a waiver to open for in-person learning.
Two other local schools have also applied to reopen for in-person learning. Those applications, at Desert Chapel Christian School and King’s School, both in Palm Springs, are pending approval. California is currently only considering applications to reopen for elementary grades.
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California health officials have granted more than 100 waiver requests this week, with the only four that were denied coming from San Bernardino County. No public schools or school districts in the Coachella Valley have requested a waiver to host in-person learning at this time.
Without seeking the waiver, schools will need to wait until Riverside County is removed from the coronavirus watch list for 14 consecutive days before they can reopen for in-person learning.
Thirty-three counties in California remain on the watch list, including San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties to the west and Imperial County to the east.
Sherman said during this time, when there are many changes in youth education, it is important not to forget the mental and social health of students. He said that it will be a focus at Palm Valley School and he hopes that returning to campus can help with the social and emotional health of its students.
“Because these are formative years,” Sherman said, “and to spend six months with your parents or six months with a computer screen and not have that social, emotional growth, is really going to be impactful for this generation.
“It’s a really important focus that I think people tend to ignore because it’s not easily discernible, but it’s very important for child development.”
Andrew John is a reporter for The Desert Sun and the USA TODAY Network. Find him on Twitter: @Andrew_L_John. Email him at [email protected]