The Palo Alto Unified Board of Education gave the green light on Friday, July 3, to the district's plan for reopening schools this fall with some tweaks, including requests to plan for more in-person time for sixth graders and to consider later start times for middle and high school students.
The board unanimously approved a plan that will bring elementary students back to schools in person while middle and high school students will primarily learn at home, with some options to gather in-person for small group activities on their campuses. The secondary-schools proposal is a departure from the district's initial plan to have groups of middle and high school students alternate coming to school in person two days a week.
The board members asked staff to return in two weeks with a plan that would allow sixth graders to be on campus for "significant, ongoing academic instruction," which they hope would help ease their transition into middle school. The district released before Friday's meeting a proposal for in-person sixth-grade orientation: two days during which groups of 12 students would meet their classmates and teachers in person and familiarize themselves with their new schools.
The board also asked staff to come back in two weeks with a proposal for starting the secondary school day at 9 a.m. instead of 8:30 a.m., regardless of whether students are learning remotely or in person.
Superintendent Don Austin said the proposed schedule was designed to work for both distance and face-to-face learning — and accounts for the likelihood that schooling could shift back and forth between those settings depending on local public health conditions. On start times, he said, "We don't want to adjust just because we are closed right now."
Board members, however, pushed back, citing the importance of sleep for students' mental health.
"This situation that we're in, while it has lots of downsides, is an opportunity for us to move our start times later, not just during the period of school closures when we're not physically on campus but after that as well," board member Ken Dauber said.
The district is asking elementary school families to decide whether they want their individual children to learn remotely or in person this fall by July 17, a looming deadline about which several parents expressed anxieties. They asked that the district provide more information before then, particularly about what the distance learning would look like and details around safety protocols.
The board echoed these concerns and asked the district to give parents more detailed information — and to prioritize proactive communication in general in the coming months. Austin said the district will send out soon a localized summary of Santa Clara County's reopening schools guidelines, which are an "anchor" for the district's plan.
"We're going to have to communicate our butts off," President Todd Collins said. He suggested the district designate a staff member to field and answer parent questions and that the district provide updates on a weekly basis.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell also asked that the district communicate clearly expectations for synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous learning, a concern for many parents.
Without a clear statement from the district, "Everyone's on uneven ground and we're going to have a lot of people unhappy because they're going to have an expectation that they made up," Baten Caswell said.
On Friday, Austin clarified that for elementary students who start the school year fully online and then want to return in person later in the fall, the district's intention is to give them a spot at their home school. The district hopes it will be "rare" that those students can not be placed at their regular school, but it is possible.
Child care for families remains a major issue, but the district is planning to contract with an additional organization, Right At School, to offer their services to families, Austin said. The board will consider a contract with the program next Tuesday, July 7.
Board members and teachers also voiced concern about the impact on students in the elementary schools' Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs and how those offerings could translate online. Baten Caswell cautioned that staff's suggestions for Zoom conversations between teachers and students and online language applications could be insufficient.
"If we just have teachers having conversations with kids via Zoom as the supplement, those kids aren't going to be ready to go back into an immersion program," she said. "We will have done extra work but not gotten students to our goal."
Both board members and district staff emphasized that this iteration of the reopening plan is subject to change and "does not mean that we're done with the work," Austin said.
"For a transition plan to get us started, this one makes total sense. If the data goes in a direction that is positive, we're back. If it goes the opposite direction, we're not," he said. "We have a plan to get school started in a way that's reliable."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.