Editor's note: After Gov. Gavin Newsom's July 17 announcement that schools in counties being monitored by the state for troubling coronavirus trends cannot reopen in person, Palo Alto Unified had to close its Extended School Year program. The program moved online for the final three weeks.
Every day this week, as debate continues to rage about how and when to safely reopen schools, students in Palo Alto got off buses and out of cars, had their temperatures and symptoms checked and headed into classrooms to learn in person for the first time in four months.
These students are attending Palo Alto Unified's Extended School Year program, which every summer serves students with moderate to severe disabilities, including autism, intellectual disabilities, and visual and physical impairments.
This year, however, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, it's the only program of its kind taking place in person in Santa Clara County, according to the school district. The program offers a kind of test case for reopening schools this fall and how the district can serve some of its most vulnerable students face-to-face while adhering to public health requirements.
Forty students, from middle school to postsecondary, are attending the five-week program in person at Greene Middle School on Middlefield Road. Seven medically fragile students are enrolled online. During the regular school year, they are part of the district's Futures and postsecondary programs for students with moderate to severe disabilities.
This is lower than typical enrollment, Extended School Year Coordinator Laurie Garcia said. The Sunday evening before the program began on Monday, July 6, she received several emails from parents who decided they were uncomfortable sending their children for in-person instruction — as well as staff who decided they didn't feel safe coming back to work.
But families who did send their children to the summer program said it was desperately needed. Distance learning simply didn't happen in any meaningful way for these students the last few months — students for whom routine, structure, socialization and constant support is critical — and parents said their children's academic and emotional health suffered as a result. Parents said they were left to fill the gaps themselves while managing their own full-time jobs.
"For me, it was like a hurricane came and it kept coming," parent Sheena Aurora said of distance learning.
Her 16-year-old autistic son is attending the summer program in person — a decision she said she didn't make lightly, given the potential health risks.
"But he misses that social interaction. He misses that relational learning," she said. "What's the price to pay for not going?"
School district staff worked for months to design an Extended School Year program that would comply with public health mandates, knowing that these students, more than most, would need in-person interaction and support. They consulted with the Santa Clara County Department of Public Health and local medical and education experts.
Each classroom is limited to eight students. They used blue tape to mark squares on the floor around each desk, a visual cue for the students to keep their distance. They conduct daily symptom and temperature checks of students, staff and any visitors (including this reporter). The summer program has an isolation room in case anyone shows coronavirus symptoms and its own custodian who deep cleans the classrooms every night. The hallways, converted into one-way paths, are covered with flyers reminding students to keep 6 feet apart and wash their hands.
The teachers and staff — including an occupational therapist, speech therapist, behavior specialist and adaptive PE teacher — all wear masks or face shields. Olenka Villarreal, whose daughter Ava is non-verbal, worried she wouldn't recognize people with most of their faces covered, so she donated clear masks for the staff. Other students also need to be able to read lips.
The masks were a major point of concern for the district. Would students with disabilities realistically be able to wear masks for several hours a day?
The answer is mixed. District staff asked parents to get their children used to wearing masks at home before the program started. On a recent afternoon, several students were wearing masks, while others needed gentle reminders. Some students cannot wear them due to their disabilities, including those who are unable to put one on.
The staff have been using incentives to encourage students to keep their masks on. For those who can't, staff try to keep 6 feet away and wash their hands before and after interacting with the students.
"It's a new environment," said Arshdeep Shinh, the program's middle school teacher. "It's not the same where I can step right next to the student and work right over their shoulder. I try to stay as far away as possible and try to give directions from a distance."
In general, these students, who thrive under structure and rules, have adapted well to the new health requirements, district staff said.
"It's difficult to try to do distance learning with them because they're more hands-on, sensory (learners) and doing distance learning can take that away from them," the program's high school teacher, Raquel Cuevas, said. "Being in a classroom, they're able to get back on a routine."
Last week, Cuevas took her students on a scavenger hunt for an art project. They roamed the campus collecting leaves, sticks, rocks and flowers and brought them back to the classroom to work, while a live stream of the Monterey Bay Aquarium played on a screen at the front of the classroom.
Two of the four students in this classroom were wearing masks.
Cuevas is trying to create as many outdoor activities as possible, knowing many of the students have been isolated in their homes for months.
Postsecondary students, who typically focus on vocational skills, have been going out for local park cleanups. On a recent morning, two staff wearing face shields guided a visually impaired student down the hallway so she could practice using a cane to walk.
Bela Singha sent her 16-year-old daughter, who has cognitive delays, to the summer program without a thought. Distance learning had been a "pure nightmare," she said.
The district did not provide remote one-on-one aide support or physical education for her daughter, despite her requests. The burden was only eased by a case manager who went above and beyond for her child, she said.
But Singha was most concerned about the detriment to her daughter's mental health.
"A typical kid can pick up their phone and call people to stay connected to the world. A typical kid can get on a bike and go down the street and exercise," she said. "The social disconnect is the biggest challenge."
Villarreal also did not hesitate to send her daughter to the summer program.
"For me, the risk sending her to school is lower than just her languishing at home," she said. "My husband and I both work full time so that becomes very difficult. We fall under that umbrella of parents (who) use the school as not only a place of education but it's a respite for us, for child care."
She said Ava, a rising Palo Alto High School senior, had "no meaningful educational experience since March." Twice-weekly Zoom check-ins with her teacher were often unsuccessful.
"She would slam the computer closed because she's not understanding why is she home, why is her teacher one square out of 20 on a computer?" Villarreal said.
It's challenging to explain to a developmentally delayed child what the coronavirus is or why their schools are closed, Villarreal said. Her daughter would often pull up photos on an iPad of people she's not seeing or outings she's no longer going on.
Villarreal and other special-education parents said they hope the district allows their children to attend school in person this fall, but the district has not yet finalized its plan for special education.
Singha said it feels unfair that the district is discussing allowing sixth-graders to be on campuses in person to ease their transition to middle school but that there's been little communication about students with disabilities for whom socialization and interaction are also crucial.
"We tend to be a forgotten group sometimes," Villarreal said. "I do believe they're putting thought into it but it would just be unbearable if they decide that kids like Ava are going back to Zoom."
Another question in parents' minds is whether their children's teachers will want to come back to school in person.
"Parents are worried about, who will return and will it be enough? Will they feel comfortable coming back?" Villarreal said. "It's the world of the unknown."
In an open letter this week, the Palo Alto Educators Association urged the district against reopening schools this fall, citing concerns about social distancing and the limitations of in-person instruction, including for special-education students.
"Many students with special needs require personal help multiple times a day, such as toileting, and do not understand social distancing guidelines," the union wrote in the letter, which was signed by more than 400 teachers. "Students with special needs also have required testing which demands close contact with educators. Students in crisis may require interventions where staff need to be close to them. There are many adults in the room, which will make social distancing even harder."
All of the 42 staff working at the Extended School Year program this summer volunteered for the job. Several said that their nervousness about the potential health risks was outweighed by a deep obligation to serve these students.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.