During a live webinar on Monday evening, Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin candidly addressed the realities facing a school district that was forced in a number of weeks to move instruction and services for 12,000 students online.
"We're not doing distance learning right now. We're doing crisis learning," he said.
"There should be no illusions that what we're trying to do is a best practice or an attempt to replace classroom instruction," he continued. "It's not possible for us right now. What we are seeing is great effort."
The hourlong webinar was the first in a weekly series he plans to host while schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District are closed. Future webinars will include guests and focus on specific topics. (On April 27, Palo Alto and Gunn high schools' new principals, Brent Kline and Wendy Stratton, will join, as well as Greene Middle School math teacher Josh Spira to talk about the school closures from a teacher's perspective. May 4 will focus on classified staff and elementary schools.)
On Monday, Austin discussed several hot-button issues, from a change in grading practices to a desire among some in the community for more comprehensive online learning. He answered some questions submitted by viewers.
Below is a summary of his comments on the major topics he addressed. A recording of the webinar is available on YouTube.
Austin defended his decision in late March to move all middle and high school students to a credit/no credit grading system for the rest of the semester, which has sparked backlash from some parents and students. Those who oppose the decision are primarily concerned about the potential impact for high school juniors on the cusp of college applications in the fall.
Austin said he made the credit/no credit decision after consulting with private and public colleges and universities across the country that indicated there "would be no downside" to doing this. Palo Alto Unified's 80 teacher leaders also unanimously supported the move, he said. Austin believes a credit/no credit system, with no impact on students' grade point averages, will protect students with fewer resources at home from being disproportionately harmed by the closures.
Austin noted that other districts, both locally and nationally, have since adopted credit/no credit policies. In early April, Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan recommended that all county districts move to a credit/no-credit grading system for the remainder of the school year.
"We need to put this one behind us now," Austin said Monday. "This decision was made on March 25, about a month ago now. Our mind needs to shift into the future of where we're going."
Some parents have pointed to the Los Angeles Unified and San Diego Unified as examples of major school districts that are retaining letter grades, with some flexibility. In Los Angeles Unified, for example, no student's grade can be worse than what it was when schools closed, but grades can improve.
Austin said that specific comparisons to those two large, urban districts are unhelpful given Palo Alto Unified "couldn't look more different than those two districts if we tried."
He reassured parents and students who are concerned about the absence of a letter grade on second-semester transcripts that students and teachers will be able to describe in college applications how students approached learning during an unprecedented time.
"We feel we're completely defensible, in the norm and in fact followed by many," Austin said.
The district is balancing asynchronous and synchronous teaching, Austin said, and the expectation is not for teachers to be providing hours of live learning to students at this time.
"If the expectation from our families is that a secondary student is going to sit in front of a computer for three, four, five hours a day and have live interaction with a teacher, there's no other way to say this: You're going to be disappointed," Austin said. "That is not the expectation. That's not going to be our reality."
He said teachers are working to publish their individual schedules to help students avoid conflicts on Zoom or other video conferencing.
He encouraged parents with concerns on either end of the spectrum — that their child is not getting enough instruction or spending too much time in front of a computer screen — to reach out to their children's teachers.
High school graduation
Although the high schools will remain closed through the end of the year, the district is working on multiple ways to commemorate seniors' graduation on the original dates they were scheduled for, such as a video or photo slideshow. He is working with the high school principals, activities directors and some students to determine what that will look like and how the broader community could be involved.
"We're going to do multiple things. They may not resonate with every student but we're hoping that the more that we do, the more chance for success," Austin said.
They considered postponing graduation, but he said they "didn't think there was a benefit that was worth postponing it that outweighed having some certainty in getting it done."
The school district is facing an estimated $3 million shortfall due to declining revenue and increasing expenditures that have accumulated since schools closed, Austin said Monday.
"The budget right now is looming and is really scary and could change some of the ways we're going to have to think about our work," he said.
Austin said in a recent call with the governor's office, schools were told to "think about the worst case scenario for school budgets" and "lower your expectations."
Austin did not provide further details. In an email following the webinar, he said more information will be provided at a school board meeting on Tuesday when board members are set to discuss the financial implications of the closures, among other issues.
The district is seeing an uptick in student counseling referrals during the shutdown, Austin said. He emphasized that help is available to students as well as teachers, staff and parents and that mental well-being should be prioritized during this time.
"This is not a time for us to make this a secondary issue. In fact, I want everyone to hear: This is the most primary issue we have, period. If we don't come out of this healthy then nothing else matters," Austin said.
The district has contracted with Care Solace, a free, online service that helps connect people to local mental health services based on what they're struggling with, insurance options and other criteria. (To use Care Solace, go to caresolace.com/pausdfamilies.) The district also has seen a rise in people using this service, Austin said.
He urged anyone struggling emotionally or who is not able to access services to reach out to teachers, principals or even his office.
"If you're struggling in this area, you are definitely not alone," he said. "This is not a time to let things grow and become worse with time."
View a new district webpage dedicated to mental health services here.
Austin said his "biggest fear" related to reopening schools is that even after getting the green light from public health and education officials, some parents and staff may be reluctant to return.
Questions about when campuses will reopen and what school will look like remain unanswered. Gov. Gavin Newsom indicated last week that schools could see staggered schedules to reduce the number of students on a campus at a time, with partial online learning continuing. Austin said those kinds of ideas are "great," but he's unsure how they would practically work. The district is advocating for the California Department of Education to change education code to allow for classes to be taught both face to face and remotely, he said.
Summer school also remains up in the air. It could be paused, offered virtually or moved to the end of the summer, Austin said.
The temporary closures offer the district a rare opportunity, Austin said, to think critically about what schools can and should look like when they do reopen — particularly in the way they serve disadvantaged students.
"If we reopen with the goal of looking the way we did when we closed ... that's going to be the biggest missed opportunity in the history of schools," he said. "Not only will we reopen not as strong as when we left because that's just a reality, it's going to take us some time … but we will be reopening, missing the chance to attack some of the systems that disadvantaged so many of our students for decades."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.