By Derek Wilson
Young students at Mill Valley’s Terra Marin School explored their newly remodeled classrooms and outdoor play areas with a degree of excitement as they returned to campus last week to find fairies, dinosaurs and teddy bears.
The progressive K-8 private school, which draws students primarily from Marin County and San Francisco, began a staggered return on Tuesday, Sept. 8, with different grades beginning on-site learning on different dates. The rollout began with preschool and kindergarten classes and will continue gradually until all grades are on campus.
Terra Marin was one of 15 Marin County schools granted permission to begin on-site learning as of September 8, although several schools postponed their opening due to the hazardous air quality that haunted Northern California recently. Even Terra Marin closed the campus for one day last week because of the poor air quality and haze, which at times completely obscured the San Francisco skyline from the peak of nearby Camino Alto.
Terra Marin, now in its third year, is known for project-based learning and immersive cultural experiences. Students celebrated the Lunar New Year in February with lion and dragon dances, music and dim sum. They work together in the classroom to create new objects, sometimes by simply stacking cups as high as possible.
“It’s amazing to see what they can do, sometimes even what they come up with on their own,” said Wendy Xa, Terra Marin’s head of school.
Terra Marin teacher Riva Zippin wrote to parents, “I gave the kids a science challenge to try to build the tallest tower of cups. Each student got 20 paper cups. They had some time to experiment, then I set a timer for 2 minutes and they had to try to build a structure of cups. We measured at the end to see how tall each tower was, then we started over and they got two minutes to try to beat that height. I was touched to find that the kids were not really into competing with each other and instead were encouraging and kind. At one point, we had some tears over a fallen tower, and immediately people dropped what they were doing to help. Then, we had some frustration, and one of the kids offered up their own cups to supplement our frustrated friend’s. In the end, they really just preferred to work together. They combined their cups and made an EPIC tower. Did it fall down a few times? Of course. Did they get frustrated? No way. Did they laugh it off and try again? OF COURSE. The cup tower inspired everyone, and the Poppy kids have continued to build this week, during choice time, recess time, any time they can get their hands on those cups! I had to add more, because they really wanted to build a tower taller than themselves. Did they succeed? OF COURSE.”
Students were introduced to a new classroom environment during the summer, as Terra Marin opened its micro-schools with a series of camps. The nature-based classes met at different sites for an outdoor program. Xa related a trip to Tennessee Valley as a teacher led a small class on a walk to the beach. Along the way, students learn about Earth sciences, along with languages, music, math and all the other academics usually covered in a classroom. Once they got to the beach, students expressed what they learned and felt through art or journaling; they shared their thoughts within the group; they played music and they enjoyed lunch.
The micro-school outdoor classes include one multi-subject teacher and one “earth educator” with a safety certification.
“It’s a safe environment out in nature, safer than almost anywhere else,” Xa said. “It’s a great way for students to learn. When the kids are inside all day, they can go stir crazy, as we’ve all seen over the past few months. We all need to commune with nature and with other people. We see it with the micro-school. The kindergarteners are so happy.”
Delayed first by Covid quarantine restrictions, and then by smoke from intense fires, more schools around Marin County might finally open their doors to students in late September or early October. Only schools with small enrollments were granted waivers to open early, but larger middle schools and high schools could soon see students at their desks.
As Marin County on September 15 officially moved to Tier 2, with more relaxed sheltering restrictions, officials penciled Tuesday, Sept. 29, as a possible date for a welcome back party. The county must avoid an increase in the percentage of new Covid cases for two weeks before schools can reopen.
There have been no formal announcements from any of Marin County’s high school districts regarding an official reopening date. The Branson School in Ross, which is celebrating its Centennial anniversary, has scheduled on-site learning to begin October 15-16. Marin Catholic is expected to set a return date for on-site learning soon. Many schools are still considering how to balance on-site learning with families that would prefer to continue distance learning.
Before schools can reopen, however, they must have approved safety protocols, including daily health screening, air filters, limited class sizes and cohorts to prevent potential exposure to germs or the coronavirus.
“We are taking these precautions so our kids can have a real-life experience,” Xa said. “We prepare the children for school. They don’t get to just hang out with friends as before because there has to be some distancing and smaller groups. But still, people just need people and children have to see other children.”
Terra Marin’s enrollment tops out near 80 students, with class sizes no more than 12 students in each 1,000 square foot classroom. The school is roughly 90,000 square feet total for 100 students. There are three separate entrances for the preschool, lower school and upper school students in order to reduce contact. Students spend four days on campus and one day for off-site learning.
As students arrive at the main entrance, they find an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser, along with a list of “dos and don’ts” to keep everyone healthy. Sure, there is some initial “hand holding” by parents to help students get used to the new school policies, but Xa says it’s going well.
“Parents whose kids are back on campus are happy and feel comfortable about it,” Xa said. “Parents whose children are not yet back on campus are still nervous.”
Terra Marin has spent weeks on safety protocols and remodeling the campus for improved safety. Carpets have been replaced by vinyl hardwood flooring in the classrooms and offices; there are new air filters and each classroom has its own air flow system; new walls have been added to create spaces for more bathrooms, which feature automatic faucets and dispensers for soap and paper towels; the faculty lounge is now a workspace for staff; the outside play areas have been divided for different classes; and more.
It is a potentially expensive remodeling project, especially for a non-profit, but Xa has been persistent. Parents and supporters of the school have provided some new equipment. The neighboring Edna Maguire School has loaned some of its desks to the Terra Marin School. And Xa has been shopping for deals on chairs and tables wherever she could, finding ergonomic chairs for $25 each instead of the usual $650 price.
“As we tighten our belt, I remember that we’re lucky that we’re not closing. I’m determined to do the best by our students,” Xa said. “It’s tough, but we do what we can to stay open. By the time Covid regulations are lifted, we will end up with a better building than before.”
Xa continued, “We need to take the time to find a silver lining in the pandemic crisis. The Earth is bouncing back: dolphins are swimming in the Golden Gate; the ozone levels are better; animals are coming out of hiding. I hope we walk away from this with a higher appreciation for what we have here and don’t take advantage of it.”