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Webb Schools hoping to move to in-person classes by mid-April

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Tucked away in the Claremont foothills north of Base Line Road, The Webb Schools, with its 400 students and 150-acre campus, is among the most picturesque private high schools in California.

A local mainstay for 99 years, Webb has been somewhat insulated from some of the harsher elements of public high school life.

But COVID-19 is an equal opportunity virus, affecting every school, public or private. And most have been shuttered since the pandemic hit last March.

Like Claremont Unified School District’s two public high schools, Claremont and San Antonio, Webb—which in 1981 opened a separate girls’ school on its campus, hence the plural, Webb “Schools”—is following the guidance of Los Angeles County with respect to reopening.

“We must adhere to the same guidelines of other secondary schools in the county, opening only when cases in the region fall to seven per 100,000 for five consecutive days,” said Webb’s Head of Schools Taylor Stockdale.

Mr. Stockdale was referencing the L.A. County Department of Health edict stating adjusted case rates in Los Angeles County—the weekly average number of daily new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents—must for five days running hit seven or less per 100,000 before middle and high schools can open their doors. That number has been falling rapidly as of late, but still sat at 20 this week, a long way from seven.

If the adjusted case rate does reach that threshold, and the county gives Webb the nod to open, it will have to happen before too long.

“What we’d like to do if possible is to resume our in-person program for the final quarter of the year, which would start mid-April,” Mr. Stockdale said. “If we’re unable to do that we’re going to continue with our [online] academic pod daily program and finish up that way.”

Mr. Stockdale reported “several” Webb employees had tested positive for coronavirus over the past year, but declined to provide a number. He also would not comment on whether or not any students had been infected, but did say Webb had luckily not recorded any COVID-19-related deaths over that time among students or employees.

Like all school administrators, Mr. Stockdale and his colleagues at Webb have had to get creative to provide safe interactions for their students over the past year.

“We had athletic conditioning going on before the holidays, all outside of course, all carefully monitored, all masked,” Mr. Stockdale said. “And we had to postpone that just given the numbers in the region.”

Athletic training resumed February 8. “And then on March 1 we’re going to begin our academic pod daily program,” Mr. Stockdale said.

That program involves opening up Webb’s campus and dormitories to students for in-person study with peers. While that plan may raise an eyebrow for some, masks are required, and all students will be tested when they enter campus with the Abbott Antigen COVID test, which provide results within 15 minutes.

The school has its own two-step testing, contact tracing and medical intervention plan in place, and students will of course be six-feet apart.

“The idea is we use the Abbott [antigen] test, and if someone tests positive, we follow up with a [molecular] PCR test to verify the outcome. PCR tests take a couple days.”

Webb has 10,000 Abbott tests on hand. It also has 2,000 PCR tests, the deep nasal swab assessment that is perhaps the least desirable from a patient’s perspective, but also the most accurate.

“If they test positive for the Abbott test, they are immediately isolated, given medical care, we do contact tracing, and we await their PCR test result,” Mr. Stockdale said. “Our courses are still all online. It’s just to get them out of the house and able to socialize a bit and be on campus.”

If students return to in-person learning, all Webb students will be tested at least once per week as the academic year rolls on, Mr. Stockdale said. “Our goal is twice a week once people are back.”

Many private schools have felt the financial hit of having to close their campuses for the past year. Though some elementary schools have received L.A. County waivers to operate with limited capacity for TK through second grade, the fact remains most private schools’ primary source of revenue—tuition—has been impacted by the virus and the associated drop in enrollment. Webb has thus far fared better than many. 

“Thanks to our incredibly generous alumni, parents and friends, we’ve been able to mitigate the majority of the financial hit,” Mr. Stockdale said. “But, you know it’s obviously been a challenging time for everyone, including Webb. We are continuing to plow forward, but it’s been a time when we’ve had to ask our supporters to really sacrifice in order to allow us to continue to thrive, which they have.”

The school has furloughed 20 non-faculty workers out of an overall pool of 170 employees.

“We have not laid anyone off,” Mr. Stockdale said. “We have furloughed some people because we simply don’t have students on campus. But we have maintained their benefits the entire time.”

Mr. Stockdale, 58, grew up in Coronado. He was appointed Webb’s sixth head of schools in 2010 by its board of trustees, but his tenure at the private Claremont school began 33 years ago. He served as assistant head of schools prior to his latest job, and before that he taught in the classroom for 15 years.

“I’ve had a lot of different jobs here, but 33 years at one school, and it feels like a blink of an eye,” he said. “It’s an odd thing and I really have loved every minute of it. It never gets old. It’s always an exciting place to be. I feel incredibly fortunate to be here.”

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