Santa Clara County ordered all public schools in the county to close for three weeks beginning Monday, March 16 through Friday, April 3, to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since Palo Alto Unified School District's weeklong spring break begins on April 4, all Palo Alto public schools will be closed for a minimum of four weeks.
Friday's announcement came amidst a cascade of school closures throughout the region, state and nationally — and less than 24 hours after Palo Alto school officials backed a plan to keep campuses open but offer limited online learning alternatives to students who choose to stay home. San Mateo County's health officer also ordered all public schools to close from March 16 through April 3 and offer at-home learning "if feasible."
Palo Alto students and staff should expect school to resume on Monday, April 13, Superintendent Don Austin told the Palo Alto Weekly, though the district will reassess at that time.
The plan to shut down schools countywide was made after "extensive consultation" with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, county Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan said in a press conference.
"The decision to close schools to student attendance is a serious matter," she said. "Schools play an essential role in our society and returning to normal operations promotes continuity. The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff are our top priority."
The "tipping point," Austin told the Weekly, was the implications for schools of the direction from California public health officials that non-essential gatherings of 250 or more people should be postponed or canceled until the end of March. The state released that guidance on Wednesday. During's Friday press conference, the county announced a legal order banning public and private gatherings of more than 100 people.
"I agree that the gathering guidelines don't make sense when we're canceling certain events and not other settings where students are clearly together," he said Friday. (The district has suspended all athletic events, field trips, school dances and any non-essential extracurricular activities.)
Palo Alto Unified will not be providing online courses for its 12,000 students, Austin said. However, principals and teacher leaders started working this week to develop "flexible learning options" for all grade levels, including study guidelines and links to free online resources for the elementary schools.
Secondary school coursework, though, particularly at the high schools, is more difficult to translate to online. Teachers will be expected at the beginning of the shut down to figure out what they can offer their students remotely, he said.
"We still don't think we're going to be able to ramp it up in any way that replicates classroom instruction," he said. "We've tried to be exceedingly clear about that from the start."
At an emergency school board meeting late Thursday afternoon, Austin and board members supported keeping schools open — "coming to school is still the first, best option," the superintendent said — and reiterated that they are following the public health department's lead on this question. District communications have described closing schools as a disruptive last resort that would have personal and potential health consequences for students, families and staff. The county has also cautioned that closing schools could pull parents from the work force, including those who provide health care.
"I still believe all those things but at the core, we said we're going to follow the guidance of the experts in the field with the authority to provide us that direction," Austin said Friday. "I still believe it's going to be a significant disruption, that people will have family hardships when it comes to child care and other pieces of this. ... I think the students that need us the most are going to miss us the most. None of that has changed."
The district plans to release additional information about "availability of critical services and educational continuity options" for the next few weeks by the end of Monday.
The county-wide closure is "designed to provide schools with the time needed to create long-term plans to operate in ways that facilitate social distancing, provide all necessary hygiene and cleaning supplies, ensure adequate staff time and resources to follow public health guidance, and create plans to address the possibility that a significant portion of their staff will need to stay home sick if they contract COVID-19," Santa Clara County Public Health said.
The county expects districts to "do all they can" to continue to provide services to students and families, including academic instruction to students at home, free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch for those eligible and resources for parents.
Palo Alto Community Child Care, which provides after-school programs at the district's elementary schools, said Friday that it will close March 16 through April 10.
Starting on Monday, March 16, the district will provide free lunch to all students at three schools designated as pick-up sites, beginning March 16 and ending on April 3. Families can pick up lunch at JLS Middle School, Greene Middle School and Gunn High School from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. throughout the closure. Staff will hand the meals to families in their cars, like at a drive-thru. Children must be present in order for meals to be picked up; each family is eligible for the quantity of meals equal to the number of children in the car, the district said.
Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP) students who live in East Palo Alto can pick up breakfast and lunch at Ravenswood City School District schools from March 16 through March 26 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Ravenswood is also offering home delivery if families cannot pick meals up. The East Palo Alto school district is also closed from March 16 through April 3. More information on meals pick-up in East Palo Alto is available here.
Both districts are discouraging families from congregating at the campuses while picking up food.
All Palo Alto Unified staff are expected to report to work on Monday, March 16, Austin said in a message to the community, and then will be on call to work remotely from March 17 through March 20, with the exception of "critical staff."
"This approach guarantees our ability to continue normal compensation processes and requirements for all employees," Austin wrote.
Austin urged students to practice social distancing while school is out by staying home and avoiding large public gatherings such as shopping malls, movie theaters and other spaces, particularly ones that are indoors. The city has informed the district that library access will be limited due to high demand.
"Keep students at home or we have accomplished little," Austin tweeted on Friday.
In his message to the school community, he wrote: "We understand that implementing these changes with such limited notice is challenging and may be disruptive; we appreciate your patience and cooperation," Austin wrote. "We are grateful to community members throughout our county for their tremendous efforts during these unprecedented times."
Public Health Officer Sara Cody said that the county's more "aggressive" restrictions reflect an effort to balance "the public health need to slow the spread of infection with a significant impact we know these actions will have on the lives of our residents.
"We believe these actions are necessary to protect the wellbeing of our community during one of the most historic public health challenges of our time," she said.
Santa Clara County now has 79 confirmed cases of COVID-19 -- an increase of more than threefold within the last week. Cody said she expects this number to grow in the days and weeks to come.
On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to ensure California public school districts retain state funding even if they close, directing schools to use the state dollars to support distance learning, provide school meals and "as practicable," arrange for supervision of students during school hours.
"Closing schools has a massive, cascading effect for our kids and their families – especially those least equipped financially to deal with them. The needs of California kids must be met regardless of whether their school is open or closed," Newsom said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.