Current Palo Alto and Gunn high school seniors won't walk across the graduation stage to receive their diplomas until December, the Palo Alto school district announced Monday.
The district decided to postpone graduation rather than hold a virtual ceremony in June in response to student feedback "overwhelmingly" in support of doing so, Superintendent Don Austin said during a live webinar on Monday evening.
Some students said they wouldn't attend a remote ceremony even if it was offered, according to a letter Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence sent to seniors and their families on Monday. (Paly seniors and parents received a nearly identical notification from Principal Adam Paulson.)
"The voice of the student body was that they do not want an imitation ceremony," reads a FAQ attached to the high school principals' letters.
Austin said the district has received requests for alternatives that aren't lawful under current Santa Clara County public health mandates, including holding spaced-out graduations with no audiences or drive-by, "processional" ceremonies with cars and bikes.
Pushing graduation out until the end of summer is not realistic, the district said.
"It is not foreseeable that within three months that these restrictions will permit 2000+ person events," the FAQ states. "Public health officials support this rationale and advise against planning events during this time period."
The district doesn't yet know when in December graduation will take place but will aim to schedule the event when outgoing seniors will be home from college — "that is if colleges have students on their campuses in the fall either," Austin said.
"These are tough times right now. It's a real challenge to know who is or is not going to be on campuses, where they're ours or colleges'," he said.
Other rite-of-passage events for seniors have been outright canceled due to the coronavirus, including prom.
The high school administrations are working with their student governments to plan a remote, weeklong celebration of seniors toward the end of the school year.
In Monday's webinar, Austin also addressed the challenges — and realities — of reopening schools partially in the fall.
"Are we going to tell 5 year olds," he said, "'Welcome to school. Stand 6 feet away from everybody. Do not have contact. Do not go talk to your new friends. Do not walk up to people. Do not touch things in your classroom. Don't share balls outside. Don't bump up against each other walking to classes.
"We need to call that what it is: unobtainable," Austin said.
During a Tuesday press conference, Sonia Angell, director of the state's health department, said that California could potentially see schools starting the next academic year earlier, in July or August.
District leaders are discussing the possibility of schools reopening without sports, performing arts and assemblies. They're considering converting elementary schools' multipurpose rooms into learning spaces and middle schools' gyms into computer labs or other flexible areas to provide space for students and staff.
The district is also negotiating with the city of Palo Alto to resume ownership of the old Ventura Elementary School site and looking at Cubberley Community Center as space that could be used to spread out students and teachers, Austin said. Facing budget cuts due to the coronavirus impact, the city is exploring terminating its lease of Cubberley or switching to a "shared revenue structure."
"Not only do we have a lease problem with the city for Cubberley but it's also a lot of building space over there that maybe we can use differently," Austin said.
An elementary school principal raised a question to other school leaders this week, Austin said: Is the district's primary goal in reopening to get students and teachers back, or is it to provide a high-level education?
"I'd like to say 'yes' to both but (we), like every other school district that's really being honest, is struggling with that," the superintendent said. "Will we reopen potentially partially or more virtual and say with a straight face that there will be no additional learning loss and we will be high functioning? Today the answer is 'no.' I think anyone out there that's saying anything other than the answer is 'no' … is taking some liberties with the reality."
Gunn and Paly's new principals, Wendy Stratton and Brent Kline, also spoke during the live webinar, as well as a Greene Middle School teacher sharing about distance learning. A recording of the event is available on YouTube.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.