Several Palo Alto school board members voiced support on Tuesday for preparing for the likelihood that secondary schools will have to start with or at some point revert to completely remote learning in the fall, even as the district prepares to bring elementary school students back to campus in person full time.
"The only certainty I think we have is that some sort of distance learning option is going to be necessary," said Board Vice President Shounak Dharap.
Their comments came as the district pressed pause on its reopening plans and negotiations with the teachers union while it waits for the Santa Clara County Public Health Department to release local guidance for reopening schools. Superintendent Don Austin said the county has stated the guidance will be issued before June 30.
The district is also hoping to get clarification from the state on how instructional minutes will be calculated in the fall, an issue that's creating confusion in districts across California, he said.
Palo Alto Unified is aiming to release its plan for reopening schools by next Friday, July 3, Austin said. He described the reopening process, fraught with uncertainty, as choosing from a set of "imperfect options."
"It's pretty safe to say we're not going to have an answer that's going to satisfy all requests," he said.
Board member Ken Dauber urged district staff to pursue a simplified, "achievable" plan that they'll be able to deliver on in the fall, including online-only instruction for the middle and high schools.
"I would be comfortable — not happy, but comfortable — with an online-only option for our secondary schools to start with and then understanding as quickly as possible how we can amend that with more in-person education," he said. "I think it's really critical that we not expect to No. 1, do something as good as regular school, and two, take on a challenge that's just too big for us to actually deliver on."
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza said the district should prioritize training all teachers on online learning this summer, especially in the event that there's a second wave of the coronavirus this fall and schools have to close again.
But she emphasized the importance of in-person connection for students' social-emotional as well as academic wellbeing.
"If there are any safe ways that we can be in person, I cannot stress how important it is that for our students who are feeling really isolated and stressed and depressed and just disconnected from peers— any way we can get them in some human interaction I think is better than not," DiBrienza said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said the district is "hamstrung" by government and public health guidance and didn't want to weigh in further until learning more about what restrictions local schools will be under in the fall.
Numerous parents and teachers spoke at the June 23 virtual board meeting, many cautioning against reopening schools given the potential health concerns.
"A few weeks ago I would have believed we could have had a hybrid opening. I was even buying books for my classroom library … but looking at the Santa Clara County Public Health Department's numbers today, I think that reopening plan is fantasy or madness," said Greene Middle School English teacher Kelly Zalatimo, citing the fact that Santa Clara County on Tuesday recorded its second highest daily total of new coronavirus cases in more than two months, with 122 cases.
Others, meanwhile, supported the option of in-person instruction in the fall, particularly for working parents.
"I don't think the bar should be zero risk," said parent Kathleen Tarlow. "This extended stay-at-home time has really been a strain on families. For working parents who don't have child care at home it has been really, really difficult."
Teachers spoke to the difficulties of both in-person and distance learning, including navigating social distancing requirements with young children and the challenges of connecting with students online.
"I agree with every teacher who expressed the challenges associated with reopening either in person or through distance," Austin said. "Nobody is trying to discount or in any way diminish those realities. This is hard. … in my career, nothing even resembles this in complexity and duration of the challenge."
In other business Tuesday, board members unanimously adopted the 2020-21 budget. They also waived their two-meeting rule and set aside $355,000 from the Strong Schools Bond reserve to upgrade two classroom wings at Cubberley Community Center to prepare them for use by the start of the new school year in August.
The June 23 meeting was the final regular school board meeting of the school year, but the board members will continue to hold twice-weekly special meetings to discuss reopening plans and other COVID-19 updates on Tuesday evenings and Friday mornings.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.