Air Hugs and Weekly Testing: Inside San Mateo School’s First Day Back to Class

At a glance, it looked like a normal first day of school: Kids climbed excitedly on a jungle gym, a teacher led story time, a group of fourth-graders went over classroom expectations for the year.

It was far from normal. All the students and staff had been privately tested for the coronavirus before being allowed to return to campus. Classes were being held under tents in parking lots and in storage spaces converted into outdoor or open-air classrooms. One teacher led her class remotely from a screen as she quarantined at home after traveling for a family emergency. Kindergarteners, on their first-ever day of in-person school, were learning about “air hugs” and using “airplane arms” to stay 6 feet apart.

Synapse School, a small private school in Menlo Park, is one of 21 San Mateo County schools that have been granted waivers to reopen in-person for elementary grades. Wednesday was its first day of the new school year (the restart was delayed by two days because of poor air quality).

Synapse, which was born as a lab school in 2009, offers project-based instruction with a focus on social-emotional learning and neuroscience research (hence the name). Students don’t receive letter grades and are instead assessed on concepts like risk, communication and iteration. Once a year, the entire school is turned into a “living museum” displaying students’ interactive projects based on an annual theme.

First Day Back at School for San Mateo Private School