Finding normalcy in the unknown: How students, families are coping with school closures | News | Palo Alto Online |


Finding normalcy in the unknown: How students, families are coping with school closures

With Palo Alto schools shuttering and families sheltering at home, life moves online

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Gunn High School students have organized tutoring sessions on Zoom to keep up with schoolwork. Students are volunteering to read ahead in textbooks and teach their classmates. Screenshot courtesy Aviv Shai.

It's a time-honored tradition for both Gunn and Palo Alto high school seniors to tape their college rejection letters to a wall on campus, a public, visible defiance of the high-pressure competition surrounding college admissions.

But with the campuses closed and families across Palo Alto under a shelter-at-home order for three weeks, this and other school activities can no longer take place in person. Instead, they're moving online.

A Gunn student started an Instagram page for classmates to submit and post college rejection letters. Students have organized study groups and club meetings on Zoom, the video conferencing software. A Gunn senior started a spreadsheet for students to sign up to tutor others virtually, which now covers several subjects, including AP physics and AP calculus BC, as well as non-academic topics (this week, a student live-streamed a cooking lesson: how to make pasta). A group of middle school parents teamed up to have their children work on different educational activities together through Zoom, with lessons led by the parents. A fourth grader at Ohlone Elementary School volunteered to start an online reading group for younger kids to replicate the school's buddy classes that pair older and younger students.

"Obviously there are a lot of changes to school," Gunn senior Claire Cheng said. "We're trying to continue the sense of normalcy."

In cities across the Midpeninsula, students and families are starting to adjust to their new normals in different ways. Many are proactively working to maintain structure through recreating in-person activities online, from study groups and work meetings to play dates and happy hour. For others, it's provided a chance to slow down, connect with family and savor the outdoor activities that are still permissible under the public-health order.


Midtown resident Dennis Wall was at the Middlefield Little League Ballpark getting some fresh air with his son Tanner, an 11-year-old JLS Middle School student, earlier this week. Tanner's Little League season has been postponed, so they were practicing his home run hits.

"The rules right now, as far as I understand, is we're allowed to go outside as long as we stay (apart) six feet," Wall said. "We're gonna come out as often as we can."

The Wall family, like many across Palo Alto, has found ways to make the shelter-at-home order work, temporarily. Wall, a professor at Stanford Medical School, is using Zoom, email and Slack to communicate virtually with the 20 people who work in his lab, which is focused on research related to the molecular pathology of autism spectrum disorder and related neurological disorders. He can work remotely but "it's not as effective by any stretch," he said.

Wall, his wife, Abby, and a group of friends are also using Zoom and Slack to organize daily lessons for about a dozen of their children, who attend different schools. It's like a regular school day, with coding, reading and math lessons and scheduled breaks and meals. (Abby Wall leads a high-intensity interval training workout on Zoom for 15 minutes every morning.) This week, the children were creating slideshows about countries they chose for a social studies project. A daily schedule has built-in time for the parents, too: there's a Zoom happy hour in the evening.

Eric Bloom, both a Paly parent and teacher, likened the shutdown so far to the first week when students return home from college.

"We're all living under the same roof again," he said. "We're adjusting to each other's presence."

His wife brought a computer monitor from work and set up a makeshift home office in a different part of the house — "getting ready for a long haul," Bloom said.

On St. Patrick's Day this Tuesday, instead of cooking dinner with his siblings, relatives and 82-year-old Irish mother, his sister planned to pick it up and deliver it to his mother, who lives in Barron Park.

"We're going to be like a downtown restaurant: We're closing our sit-in," Bloom joked. "We're going to make it anyway."

For parents of special-education children, the burden of at-home learning is greater. All individualized education plans (IEPs), section 504 and student study team (SST) meetings are on pause, "leaving future placements and goals in the air," said Kimberly Eng-Lee, co-chair of the Palo Alto Community Advisory Committee (CAC). Some parents of special-needs students have received packets, workbooks and logins for online interventions. Those with children who had an aide in their classrooms or received hands-on services such as occupational therapy -- either at school or privately -- are having to fill the gaps themselves, she said, though the district has provided additional tips on behavior, occupational strategies and sample schedules.

"Parents have been drafted into homeschooling. Everyone is just trying to make do at the moment; it just depends on what's offered next and how much partnering and support the district can and will offer," Eng-Lee said.

For parents looking to support students with autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and learning differences at home, the Palo Alto CAC has created a resource list that will be regularly updated.

Many local nonprofits that youth and families rely on -- such as DreamCatchers, which provides after-school tutoring to low-income Palo Alto students, and grief-support services nonprofit Kara -- have suspended their programs and are scrambling to figure out how to support families during this time.


Gunn's student government jumped into action after the announcement that schools would be closed for a month, including spring break. They organized an online film competition for students to submit short films of their own creation and compete for prizes. Student body elections went virtual, with interviews and campaigning conducted through FaceTime or video conferences. Paly's student government is also planning for online elections if schools remain closed.

Aviv Shai, a senior, who has resigned himself to the fact that he probably won't return to school this year, started the spreadsheet to organize online, student-led tutoring. He said he was motivated by his parents, "who were (and are) worried about AP tests, grades and college," but also a desire to stay engaged educationally and to keep in touch with friends during the shelter order.

He and other students have been reading ahead in textbooks and preparing presentations so they can teach their peers. Shai recently led a calculus class and, on Wednesday, "went" to a physics lecture taught by a junior.

"I found that the idea rapidly began to grow into a cool ‘show-and-tell' for students in an academic context," he said.

Some of his teachers have provided practice quizzes and tests, but he said he wishes there was "more of a schedule" to the district's flexible learning options. (The district has said its offerings will evolve over the next three weeks as it also tackles the daunting task of moving fully online for the rest of the academic year if schools can't reopen.)

For other high schoolers, motivation to keep up with schoolwork is harder to find. Max Goetz, a Gunn senior, has been going on long bike rides and spending time with his older sister, who had to leave a study abroad program in Berlin early due to the coronavirus. He plans to keep up with some of the work that's been provided by his teachers, though it's optional.

"The fact that you're not going to school every day — psychologically, you really have to self-motivate yourself," he said.

High school seniors are also feeling disappointed about the last-semester-of-school traditions and rites of passage they've lost so far due to the coronavirus — sports games, extracurricular competitions, theater performances, prom and potentially, graduation activities. (Stanford University, for its part, announced on Thursday that the administration doesn't expect to be able to hold commencement "in its traditional form" this year.)

"For me, it's especially disappointing to have prom canceled," said Goetz, who didn't go as a junior. "I'm never going to be able to experience a high school prom."

Despite his disappointment, he's trying to keep the bigger picture in mind.

"No matter how quote-unquote bored we get or how tired we get of being at home, the No. 1 thing is to be happy that you're healthy," Goetz said.

Annie Leonard, a college student who returned to Palo Alto when her classes were moved online, has been studying chemistry, cleaning, cooking, teaching her sister to dance, exercising, reading and watching movies indoors. When she did go out for a short walk earlier this week, "there were a ton of people out and about, which scared me. I thought it'd be like a ghost town. Instead, it was like everyone was on spring break."

Other students and parents have been frustrated with what they say is uneven communication from the district about its plans for online learning, which is stirring rumors and anxiety. Paly senior Benjamin Knopper said he feels the district has been "indecisive."

"First prom was canceled, then un-canceled, then re-canceled. School became optional but fully canceled later. Now, I want to know if they are going to cancel the rest of the school year or extend the deadline of cancellations," he said.

Parents have taken to Facebook groups and NextDoor threads to vent, ask questions and compare what other school districts are providing in terms of online learning. The question mark of Advanced Placement exams also weighs heavily on students and parents in this school district. On Friday, the College Board announced that in-person AP exams will not take place and that students will instead take 45-minute online tests at home. Content will focus on what most schools were able to complete by early March, the College Board said. Students will have access to free, live AP review courses, taught by AP teachers across the country.

Some parents are pressing the district to have its teachers be more regularly available to students via Zoom, such as during their regular class times. Others are defending the district as taking its time to thoughtfully rather than hastily roll out online learning for its 12,000 students.

"I know a lot of people in this area are in tech and in large multi-billion dollar corporations, so they're used to things materializing and being fully formed," said Heather Sahami, a former public school teacher whose two children attend Ohlone Elementary School and Fletcher Middle School. "School districts don't work that way.

"There's no way it's going to be the same as if they were sitting in a classroom and having that relationship and interaction," she added. "I’m not expecting that and I'm not going to fault the school for not providing that."

Her fifth-grade daughter's Ohlone teacher checked in with her using Zoom this week, and her eighth-grade son has received assignments such as watching a video of a speech for social studies and a stretching video for PE.

Because her children don't yet have smartphones, she's making sure to remind them to check in with friends. They've been using Google Hangouts for virtual playdates.

"I think checking in on how the kids are handling it and how we're handling it more actively is going to be important" as the closures continue, Sahami said.

In a new FAQ posted on Thursday, the district asked families to "assume best intentions as many teachers are just getting started in an online or distance learning format." Next week, all teachers will have established office hours that will vary in nature and length based on grade level and subject. They're working on expanded remote instruction in the event schools remain closed past spring break, the district said.

Class work remains optional for now and will not be graded for these three weeks.

"It is possible that traditional grades will be difficult, if not impossible, to issue," if the closures are longer than anticipated, the district said.

In an email to PTA leaders on Thursday, Superintendent Don Austin asked for patience and understanding as all teachers, including veteran educators, are "being thrust into a new paradigm."

"Help us to create space for our teachers to learn something completely normal without fearing a premature judgment," he wrote. "It's going to take some time. If we can assume best intentions from our trusted teachers, you will get their best effort. Fear will result in resistance and conservative efforts that will fall short of meeting our full potential."

Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Editorial Assistant Lloyd Lee contributed reporting to this story.

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20 people like this
Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 20, 2020 at 12:50 pm

My advice to High School Seniors comes from nearly sixty-eight years of watching how colleges survive.

Folks, there is no way that national colleges will let a Freshman class "miss" or disappear - the cost will be too great. So despite having only had 3/4 of a year the colleges WILL be accepting all of you "half" seniors (whatever you would like to call yourselves).

And next year most of you will be Freshman students at the college of (hopefully) your choice.

Best of luck and enjoy . . . wherever you end up.

3 people like this
Posted by Realistic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2020 at 2:46 pm

@James Thurber,

Let's hope colleges figure something out in the meantime, this thing is likely to come back around like SARS did.

I'm so impressed by how all the kids have stepped up to cope, including by getting bike rides and tutoring others.

2 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Mar 21, 2020 at 7:20 am

Amazing how Palo Alto online refuses to perform its watchdog function for Pausd. Pausd is failing to provide continued learning for its students. Report that please.

3 people like this
Posted by Connie Butner
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 21, 2020 at 7:57 am

Let's Go Crafting is practicing social distancing and is closed for in person classes. To help entertain and make it easier as we are all sheltering in place, we will be releasing a free video each day of a fun sewing/crafting project that is appropriate for all skill levels and ages.

Youtube channel: Web Link

There is all kinds of research that shows the benefits of sewing/crafting on a person's well being. Come join us at letsgocrafting on YouTube today!

2 people like this
Posted by Derek
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 21, 2020 at 10:21 am

Independent - how do you feel that PAUSD is not providing continued learned or Flexible Learning Opportunities for students? My children all had work this week and it will be increasing by a factor of 3 next week. I am curious about your experience and comments.

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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