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COVID: Lessons Learned From Menlo Park School District That Didn't Shut Down

MENLO PARK (KPIX) -- While most schools have struggled with the decision to reopen, one small district on the Peninsula has had students on campus for nearly the entire school year. There may be lesson in it for all of us about how they got past fear of the pandemic to keep kids in the classroom.

The sound of children playing is nothing new at Encinal Elementary School, in Menlo Park. The five schools in the Menlo Park City School District began bringing the littlest kids back to campus clear back on September 8. By the end of October, all kids were back in the classroom. They were the first district in the Bay Area to reopen and for a long time, they were the only one.

"We definitely thought that more districts would be following more quickly," said Superintendent Erik Burmeister. "Um, no judgements, we recognize that there are a lot of constraints out there."

Most kids have been on a hybrid system with a full week at school for core academics, like math and English and the next week at home for enrichment classes, like art or music. Students are tested every two weeks and there have been occasional cases of COVID, but the contact tracing has detected them early and, so far, there hasn't been a single instance of proven transmission at the school.

Fourth-grade teacher Susan Preston says the staff's fears were eased by the district's emphasis on something called "design thinking."

"I know I do a lot of design thinking in my classroom," said Preston. "For me, I always look at a problem and say, ok, what can I do to fix this, how can I change this and make this work, versus I can't do this because this is in my way."

Looking for ways to solve a problem that may be stopping others. It is a mindset popular in Silicon Valley and with the District's Superintendent.

"Maybe there's a solution out that has already been tried and has worked, but maybe not," said Burmeister. "And the problem is that we so rely on what we already know, as opposed to trying to take some risks with what we don't know. We had one of the world's most pressing problems (the pandemic) to see if it actually works, and I would say it worked."

Just like the rest of society, the District says the most COVID-19 cases came during the Thanksgiving surge. But currently, they have gone seven weeks without a single case being reported.

Parents like Wendy Valencia say being willing to accept that risk has made a huge difference for their kids.

"You know, despite the pandemic, my children are thriving, and it's because they're able to be in school," she said. "To me that is… it's just a blessing."

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