California school districts are likely to be closed the rest of this academic year, Gov. Gavin Newsom said on Tuesday.
"I don't want to mislead you," he said in a press conference. "I would plan and assume that it's unlikely that many of these schools — few, if any — will open before the summer break."
An education policy advocate told the Palo Alto Unified school board on Tuesday night that in conversations with Newsom's office, staff said the governor is not formally calling for schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year, but they cautioned to prepare for the state to head in that direction.
"He has felt this way privately for a while and other states clearly are being really aggressive about closing," Capitol Advisors Group President Kevin Gordon said staff communicated about Newsom. "He could see us going on that direction."
Nearly all California school districts, 98.8%, are closed in response to the coronavirus and are scrambling to adjust to a new educational normal in real time. The state released more detailed guidance for K-12 schools on Tuesday, with a focus on distance learning, meal delivery, accommodations for students with disabilities and child care and supervision. Newsom also called for a suspension of all state standardized testing while other critical, privately administered exams — the SAT and ACT — have been postponed. Advanced Placement tests remain scheduled for May 4–8 and 11–15 for schools that will be open, which remains a question mark. However, College Board, which administers AP exams, is considering allowing students to take the tests at home.
As of now, Palo Alto Unified schools are set to reopen after spring break on April 13.
"We heard pretty loud and clear tonight ... it's probably less likely than we would have hoped that we would be done by spring break," Superintendent Don Austin said.
The school board — sitting at least 6 feet apart at the dais with two board members participating by phone, limited staff and a Purell hand sanitizer dispenser sitting at the speaker's podium — took new action on Tuesday to bolster the district's response to the coronavirus.
The board unanimously approved an emergency resolution that gives the superintendent the authority to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic without board approval as long as he immediately notifies each board member of any action he takes, including the reopening or closing of schools.
Schools boards throughout Santa Clara County are considering similar resolutions at the recommendation of the county Office of Education, board members said.
President Todd Collins described the resolution as a "belt and suspenders move" that's "consistent with what other districts in our area (and) state are doing and consistent with the objective of serving students during a time of great emergency. Palo Alto Unified board policy already gives the superintendent the authority to "act on behalf of the district in a manner that is consistent with law and board policies."
"We're enforcing explicitly something that's captured in a couple lines of board policy and tying in some of these notification requirements that are really helpful," Collins said.
Austin said the resolution covers "rare," time-sensitive actions in the case of emergency.
"This is not a blank check," he said.
Trustee Ken Dauber stressed that the required notification to each board member should "actually be a notification and not a floating of a possible direction" or "taking the temperature of board members."
"That would be a slippery slope we don't want to go down," he said.
The board also decided to withdraw a parcel tax measure planned for a May mail-in election, citing concerns about the challenges a campaign that relies on knocking on doors and community outreach would face at this time. They will decide when to reschedule the parcel tax at a future date, with options for an August mail-in ballot, the November general election and a primary ballot in spring 2021.
Both the emergency resolution and withdrawal of the parcel tax were added to the board's agenda late on Tuesday under a government code provision that requires a majority of the board to determine that an emergency situation exists, which they did.
Board members discussed with Austin the district's evolving approach to remote learning as students and parents received their first week of online resources and assignments to be provided while school is closed. The district is setting "minimum expectations for consistency" but allowing teachers to individualize instruction, Austin said. Work is intended to be optional at this time and is not being graded.
"When we miss extended periods of time ... if you're a lockstep district your mentality is, this is pretty easy. It's canned and you just go. We're not that district," he said. "Our district believes in innovation, some autonomy, some creativity, some space to do things differently."
In an email after the meeting, Austin said the district is in the first of potentially three phases for distance learning, focusing now on flexible learning options with low time expectations. The second phase starts next week with "more interaction and an increase in hours" and runs through spring break. The third phase will start if schools remain closed after spring break and will entail planning for a "robust program designed to replace classroom instruction," Austin said.
Variation in the flexible learning assignments at this stage, particularly at the high school level, is sparking some concern among parents and students.
"There does not seem to be any uniformity," Jade Chao, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, told the school board on Tuesday evening. "We are also seeing unequal methods used by teachers" in homework, materials and communication with students.
Gunn High School student board representative Claire Cheng said students have a lot of questions about the variation from teacher to teacher.
"Is there standardization within our district of what's the minimum, what's the maximum, any kind of protocol at all for that?" she asked.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said that being flexible rather than standardized will benefit the district during an uncertain time.
"I know that parents are panicked. It's scary. Many families don't know how to handle uncertainty with academics," she said. "We also have to appreciate the fact that we're flexible over time. When you get places where everyone is in lockstep, there's no flexibility over time. We can learn new information, we can make ... better decisions or more robust decisions."
Palo Alto Unified and districts across the state are also grappling with what an extended closure means for supporting special-education students. If the district shifts to a full remote learning model rather than the current "flexible learning options," it must meet its legal obligations to serve all students, Collins said.
"I struggle and I know our staff struggles to find ways ... to actually figure out how to meet the requirements of the law while providing large-scale general education classes online," he said. "It's important to understand that we as public school district have a body of obligations to provide access and education all the time whenever we are open. We can't selectively serve students."
The district has said its flexible learning options include activities for special-education students and that education specialists at the secondary level will provide support to students on Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) through remote office hours on Schoology, the district's online learning management system. Any Individualized Education Plan meetings scheduled for during the school closures have been canceled and will be rescheduled "upon the reopening of schools."
The district is also working to continue to support students' mental health needs while school is out. School counselors, psychologists and Wellness Center coordinators will be available via email and can schedule time to talk with students using phone or video. Mental health staff will also be checking in with students and families who have been receiving ongoing support from their schools.
During the school closures, teachers are working remotely but are expected to be teaching and working, including planning future instruction, meeting with their departments and instructional leaders via remote conferencing service Zoom and being available for remote office hours for students, Austin said. Teachers are receiving full pay during this period.
Some classified staff are working from home at a regular rate while others have jobs that can't be done remotely, such as bus drivers, but will still be receiving full pay during the shutdown, Austin said.
Substitute teachers in long-term positions will be paid, but substitutes in pools with multiple school districts will not be, Austin confirmed.
• If you're a Palo Alto parent or student affected by the school closures, we want to hear from you for an upcoming story. Send an email to education reporter Elena Kadvany at email@example.com.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and Almanac here.