The Palo Alto school district is taking a "middle of the road" approach to reopening schools this fall, Superintendent Don Austin said, with elementary school students returning to campuses in person while middle and high schoolers likely will be primarily learning remotely.
The district released its proposed reopening plan on Tuesday, which is subject to approval by the school board. The plan came out soon after the Santa Clara County Public Health Department issued its requirements and recommendations for safely reopening schools in the fall.
The biggest evolution in the plan is the proposal for the middle and high schools. As recently as last week, the district was still considering a hybrid model, with groups of students alternating coming to school in person two days a week. School board members voiced support last week for prioritizing distance learning, particularly for high schoolers.
On Tuesday, Austin said staff were unable to create a program for a hybrid model that they felt confident in moving forward with.
"The details, once you really got into that blended model at the secondary level, became so problematic that we found ourselves becoming more complicated in a time where we all believe less moving parts is going to be the key to success," he said. "We think ... the distance learning approach for secondary students is the best chance at us getting through the curriculum in a way that matches the pacing of the past."
The district's secondary schools plan diverges from the county's allowance for middle and high schoolers to attend school in person with certain precautions in place.
Under the proposal, however, middle and high school students would regularly go to campuses for small group activities, such as science labs, student government, clubs and study groups. Extracurricular activities will be available in socially distanced settings, the district's report states.
Middle and high schoolers would receive grades in the fall and all schools and classes would follow an established schedule with synchronous components. The schools will take attendance daily.
The district also plans to open "PAUSD+," an in-person support center for middle and high school students who are struggling academically and/or facing unique challenges, such as safety concerns or limited internet access at home.
Starting Sept. 11, about a month into the new school year, the district plans to evaluate the secondary schools' offerings on a weekly basis. The district would send weekly updates to parents, with a minimum of one week's notice before any significant changes are made. Austin said he hopes the students could return to face-to-face instruction at some point.
"I'd be really disappointed if it was the whole year," he said of the distance learning model.
At the elementary schools, students would be split into two groups and go to school on alternating schedules that vary by grade level. The county Public Health Department will require elementary students to be in stable cohorts, meaning they are in the same classroom with the same classmates and teacher throughout the school day.
The district will ask elementary parents to choose a hybrid or distance-learning model by mid-July. In November, families may switch out of distance learning and return to school but their students will not be guaranteed a spot at their home school. At a special board meeting on Wednesday, Austin said that this is "not punitive. It's a math problem." If students choose to return to their schools, the district will have to adjust staffing and move teachers who are providing online instruction back into classrooms.
The district also plans to explore child care options for families, the report states.
To prepare for more comprehensive distance learning than was offered last spring, teachers will have access this summer to training on topics including using video effectively, adapting instructional strategies for an online environment and building positive learning communities online.
The latest iteration of the district's reopening plan "attempts to balance health, safety, academic programming, choice, science, child care, budget, implementation challenges and resource allocations with the fact that a degree of uncertainty and fear will accompany any reopening efforts for schools," the staff report states.
It's undebatable that students will benefit more from face-to-face interaction with teachers and their peers, Austin said, "as soon as that can be done responsibly and in a healthy manner."
"What is clearly debatable," he added, "is what 'responsibly' looks like right now."
The school board discussed the reopening proposals on Wednesday before an expected vote on the plan this Friday, July 3. Several asked district staff to return on Friday with an option for allowing sixth graders to go to school in person to help ease their transition into middle school and a brand new campus.
Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza said she was "devastated" to see middle and high schoolers will continue learning at home in the fall but glad that the district is planning for some on-campus programs.
Board members acknowledged the plan is imperfect and will more than likely change before August and throughout the school year. The district is also still in negotiations with its teachers union about working conditions for the fall, with a session scheduled for Thursday, July 2.
"When you're on very unfamiliar territory, the middle of the road is where you want to be," President Todd Collins said.
The board's Friday special meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. View the full agenda here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.