The Patagonia Public Schools have experienced an increase in COVID19 cases this fall, as would be expected with the increased exposure of in-person learning this fall.

“We’ve come close to having to go back to distance learning, but we have avoided it by using a ‘pool testing’ system with staff and students,” Patagonia Superintendent Kenny Hayes said.

Pool testing utilizes weekly COVID testing of staff and those students whose parents have given permission. The test samples are combined in a pool, which is tested for presence of the virus. If the pool test shows evidence of COVID19, each person in that pool is tested to determine who has the virus. Then the school follows CDC policies for that student.

“The more students who participate,” said Hayes, “the more we can keep COVID away from our campus. Currently, 55% of students participate; more would be even better.”

Keeping school open is the top priority. Sports programs are continuing, but some events, such as the November Harvest Festival and the Middle School dance, were cancelled due to concerns about spreading the virus. The Homecoming Dance was held outdoors on the tennis court. 

While masking is required at Patagonia Public Schools, masks are optional at the Elgin School, where parents register their preference for their children.

“In efforts to keep students safe,” Superintendent Mary Faley said, “we brought old school desks from storage to spread the students out in the classrooms, and instituted social distancing during lunch, allowing only two grades at a time in the cafeteria.” 

When a student has symptoms of COVID, school nurse Annette Koweek evaluates and sends children home to quarantine as necessary. Students who are home, either due to illness or to a parental/student preference to learn from home, can participate via Zoom throughout the day. Or the parents can pick up learning materials for their child at the school.

Because of the pandemic, enrollment in Elgin School dropped from 137 in grades kindergarten through eighth grade to 112 students last year. Numbers have rebounded this year, but only to 120 students. Some families who opted for home schooling last year have stayed with that option. Others, who prefer not to send their children to in-person schooling, have chosen to enroll them in online school in another district.

“It’s not, in many cases, what is best for students,” Faley said. While the school is using federal grant funds to offset the decrease in enrollment, the shortfall makes it harder to maintain staff and programming.

With COVID19 cases increasing in Santa Cruz County, local health officials encourage parents to pay special attention to their children’s health and COVID exposure, and to have their children vaccinated.