Update: After Thursday's school board meeting, Superintendent Don Austin indicated that the situation is still fluid. "Working phones and talking with people into the night. Our plan is temporary and can change," he said on Twitter at 11:44 p.m. "Uncharted territory for everyone with conflicting advice. ... Asking for a tiny bit if(sic) space to continue evaluation." Meanwhile, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department has announced a press conference at 11:30 a.m. to declare new orders to help spread the virus, which may involve schools.
Palo Alto Unified School District leaders are not electing to close schools in the face of the coronavirus but instead offering online and other educational alternatives to students who choose to stay home -- alternatives school officials warned are not substitutes for in-person classroom learning.
"Coming to school is still the first, best option," Superintendent Don Austin said at an emergency school board meeting on Thursday afternoon — the same day the city of Palo Alto declared a state of emergency. "We are going to be the first district in the county to allow for flexible options, meaning if you stay home that will be allowable — not recommended, but allowable."
Austin and school board members emphasized that the district is following the Santa Clara County Public Health Department's recommendation to not close schools at this point. There has not been a confirmed case of coronavirus in the school district.
The "flexible learning options" will begin on Monday, March 16, and be "reassessed" by April 3, before the start of spring break, Austin wrote in a message to families and staff on Thursday. All students are expected to return to school after break on Monday, April 13.
Parents who choose to keep their children out of school must provide written notification to their school indicating the start and expected return dates of their absence. Absences will be excused for a maximum of 10 days, at which point parents will need to provide another written notification.
"The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) has been extremely clear that closing schools ... is not as much of a mitigation strategy as people might think it is," Assistant Superintendent of Strategic Initiatives and Operations Lana Conaway said. "Within the space of a school's walls we're able to establish some conditions that would mitigate the risk of infection."
The district's decision is part of a mixed, rapidly evolving response to the coronavirus from schools throughout the region and across the country. An increasing number of private schools in Santa Clara County (which has about a quarter of the state's coronavirus cases) and throughout the Bay Area are closing proactively -- without any confirmed cases in their school communities -- to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The San Francisco Unified School District, the seventh largest district in the state, announced Thursday that all of its 113 schools will close for three weeks starting Monday after four students and their family members at one campus showed signs of respiratory illness, according to media reports. Berkeley Unified announced Thursday evening that it would close all of its schools through spring break, spurred partly by four new coronavirus cases in Alameda County, two of which are the county's first cases of community transmission, the district said in an announcement. The San Mateo Union High School District is moving to online learning through at least March 27. In Marin, the Tamalpais Union High School District decided to close temporarily despite no known cases of the coronavirus among staff or students, stating: "it has become clear that the most responsible action, at this moment, is for us to take a proactive versus reactive approach to social distancing and other containment measures."
In Ohio, Maryland, Michigan and New Mexico, K-12 public schools are closing statewide.
"How are we different?" Dharap asked on Thursday. "There's been a lot of discussion how organizations like the CDC and other health organizations in other states may have been behind the curve in dealing with the outbreak. How are we making sure that we're not behind the curve, approaching with a critical eye the advice that we're getting from all the different agencies — federal, state and county?" he said.
By Friday morning, however, Dharap became the sole board member to change his tune on possible school closures.
"Since last night, schools districts across California have announced closures," he wrote in an email to the Weekly. "I think the county needs to rapidly re-evaluate its recommendation for us to remain open."
Austin — and other board members — said that they're putting their trust in the public health experts tasked with responding to the coronavirus.
"The coronavirus is going to spread. Will it hit our schools? It would be silly for us to say it's not," Austin said. "We're going to do everything we can on our end but controlling the spread is not even a goal for the health department. It's slowing the spread.
"In their opinion, our best role in that is to stay open as long as possible and do exactly what we're doing."
What will 'flexible learning options' entail?
Principals and teacher leaders gathered on Thursday afternoon at Palo Alto High School to develop resources and activities for students who choose to stay home. For elementary school students, the district will provide "home study guidelines" and links to free online resources, all focused on reading, writing, math and enrichment, Austin said. The district is aiming to provide five to seven hours of schoolwork for a week for elementary school students.
The secondary schools will use existing technology, such as Schoology, though details on what exactly the instruction for the middle and high schools will look like were scant on Thursday.
"It will not be as comprehensive and it will not be the same," Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Sharon Ofek said of the learning alternatives. "There is no way to replicate what's happening in the classroom. I can't say that enough: It will not be the same, especially for secondary students."
Many questions remain unanswered at this point, particularly for high school students wondering how choosing to stay home could impact their transcripts, graduation requirements or if they'll be required to make up missed classwork or exams. The district will release more information on Friday, Austin said.
For special-education students, the district is planning to document in their individualized education plans (IEPs) that any distance learning is not same as what will be provided at the school site.
"This is a choice that the families have made, and by missing school, it's not the same as being in school so the services being provided are different," Ofek said.
The district is "really poorly positioned for school closures as a whole," Austin said, and does not have the capacity to offer instruction fully online.
Austin said the county contacted him early Thursday morning to ask if the district would be interested in rolling out the flexible learning options.
In a statement, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said that "school districts in Santa Clara County are working to ensure that they are making the right decisions for their communities in accordance with the recommendations from the Department of Public Health. I support the collaborative solutions that keep schools open."
Board members were supportive of the district's plan and expressed confidence in the advice they're receiving from public health officials. The county public health department has "the training, background, depth of experience and bar none the best information on what's actually going on in our local environment," Board President Todd Collins said.
"When you have a complicated situation that requires a technical understanding, you have to rely on experts," Collins said in an interview after the meeting. "For me as a board volunteer, for the staff as professional educators to arrive at judgments about what's the right thing to do -- not for kids in school but for the public health of the community -- that's way outside our lane. I feel qualified to exercise my judgment based on the advice of experts, but I don't feel qualified to substitute my judgment for that of experts."
Board members questioned whether students would stay at home if school is canceled and if that could cause further exposure or risk to themselves and the community.
"The idea of doing social distancing is to reduce these touchpoints and interactions," said board member Jennifer DiBrienza. "It's important if parents are going to keep their kids out of school that they actually keep them home. We don't have the ability to tell everyone that they have to hunker down in their home and not leave."
Both of the school board's student representatives described their peers as not taking the coronavirus seriously and seeing potential school closures as "how can I get away with having the most fun and doing the least amount of work and not in, 'What is the most safe?'" said Claire Cheng, Gunn High School's representative.
"The majority of our high school students at Paly are using this coronavirus almost as a scapegoat for not having to be on campus," said Ben Gordon, Palo Alto High School's representative.
At Gunn, students have wondered, "'If they're canceling prom, why aren't they canceling school? If they're canceling all these events, why aren't they canceling school?'" Cheng said. "If school was to close, I think it would not be a situation where students would decide to stay home and do nothing."
Jade Chao, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, offered the parent group's support to the district's efforts on Thursday, although other parents have taken to online forums to express dismay with the district's decision to keep schools open.
"We are supporting you, our school district, for any and all of the containment or mitigation strategies that the school district shall take in response to the spread of COVID-19," Chao said. "We are looking to you as our leaders."
As of Thursday, all district athletic events have been suspended, as well as field trips, school dances — including, now, high school prom, Austin confirmed — and any non-essential extracurricular activities. California public health officials are recommending that non-essential gatherings of 250 or more people should be postponed or canceled until the end of March.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department and Office of Education are exploring the possibility of a countywide, two-week spring break, Austin said Thursday.
The district is at about 90% attendance overall and is seeing more decline at the elementary schools than the middle and high schools -- a trend Austin said he expects to continue with the at-home learning options.
Meb Steiner, the president of the district's classified employees union, urged school leadership to keep front of mind the professional and personal impacts for staff. Staff and teachers might have children whose schools cancel class, might live with people who are at risk for contracting the coronavirus or might have their own health issues that put them at risk, she said. The district is encouraging teachers and staff to contact the human resources department for help navigating different kinds of leave and what they're entitled to.
Steiner said classified staff, particularly custodians and school nurses, are overwhelmed right now. She described nurses "triaging" more than a dozen coughing Paly students in the hallway outside the school's wellness center this week. When asked, Austin did not know if the students had been tested or if the district was coordinating with county health officials about these students.
Austin said that if a student, staff member or parent tests positive for the coronavirus, the district would immediately notify, consult with and take guidance from the county public health department. But closing a school is not a "predetermined" response.
Collins told the Weekly that it's not if but when the district will be faced with that situation.
"The real challenge is going to come when that happens to us. When it does happen, then we've crossed a Rubicon," he said. "At that time, I'm wide open to doing whatever's necessary."
On Thursday evening, the Ravenswood City School District announced that its schools will be closed on Monday and Tuesday to allow teachers to prepare for distance learning.
Ravenswood is in San Mateo County, where the public health department has said that "school closures (with continuity of education and operations) may be warranted in the future, but are not recommended at this time."
Watch a video of the emergency March 12 Palo Alto Unified school board meeting here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.