After being closed for six months, some Palo Alto Unified schools will reopen to serve small groups of struggling and special-education students in person.
The school district announced its plans for the in-person instruction on Friday, about a week after the California Department of Public Health issued guidance allowing schools to reopen to serve students with "acute" needs, including students with disabilities, English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students experiencing homelessness.
The first group of students to return in person will be part of the district's new PAUSD+ program, which will provide support services for middle and high school students who have been identified by the district as struggling academically, are socioeconomically disadvantaged or are English language learners.
Cohorts of 14 students will return to school on Wednesday, Sept. 9, Superintendent Don Austin said. Each middle and high school campus will house one or two cohorts, with no more than two supervising adults for each cohort. The program will run Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and is "designed to reduce the impact of school closures on our families during distance learning," the superintendent's weekly update reads.
The district is inviting specific students to participate in the program and hopes to start small, then expand as safely as possible, Austin said. The students will have access to internet, materials, free breakfast and lunch and academic support.
"This is for kids who really, really need us," Austin said. This was underscored for him this week when he visited families who live in recreational vehicles on El Camino Real after hearing students living there were having trouble accessing their online classes, even with Wi-Fi hot spots provided by Palo Alto Unified. The district mounted wireless access points outside the district office and pointed them toward the RVs to improve the students' internet access.
On Thursday, Sept. 10, about 20 special-education students in the district's postsecondary Futures program will return to in-person school at Cubberley Community Center. Austin said they are bringing those students back in person first because the space available at Cubberley makes sense for that program, which is focused on developing work skills. The decision was based on feedback from staff who had experience from an in-person summer program with the students and "a small enough number of students that we thought we could be successful with that right away."
The state released updated guidance on Friday that will allow school districts more flexibility with the make-up of cohorts, a "victory" for students with moderate to severe disabilities who require one-on-one aides, Austin said. Cohorts are limited to no more than 14 students, with no more than two supervising adults in a supervised environment, or can include no more than 16 individuals total — including children and youth or adults, the revised guidelines state.
"Cohorts can — and often will — be smaller than 14, staffed by one or two consistent adults," the guidance states. "For example, a cohort could be six students with one adult or eight students with two adults that stay together throughout the day."
The district will hold an open house for participating postsecondary Futures families on Wednesday, Sept. 9.
Palo Alto Unified plans to resume in-person instruction for more special education students this month but has not yet set a date, Austin said.
All of the in-person programs will adhere to the state Public Health Department's guidelines, including forming stable cohorts of 14 or fewer students who stay together for all activities and physical distancing "balanced with developmental and socio‐emotional needs of the age group."
Both students and adults must wear face coverings. They will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms daily — time for this is built into the PAUSD+ daily schedule released by the district — and students riding the bus can only do so if their parents have completed a health screening.
On Friday afternoon, district leadership was in negotiations about the return to face-to-face instruction with the teachers and classified employees unions, Austin said. The teachers union has voiced concern in the past about reopening schools earlier for some students.
"We fully understand that there are differences in opinion about the pace at which schools should bring students back in person," Austin said. "Students need us. We definitely want to go as fast as possible but as slow as necessary to do it right."
The high schools are also resuming in-person sports practices outdoors on Sept. 14, with athletes in stable cohorts of 14 or fewer that aren't allowed to mix.
As for when all students will be able to return to school, local school districts that aren't seeking or haven't been approved for a waiver (which are only available for grades TK-6) are waiting, under the state's new color-coded reopening plan, for the county to move into a less restrictive tier that allows in-person instruction. Schools in the purple or "widespread" tier, including both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, can't physically reopen unless they receive a waiver from their local health department. Schools can reopen for in-person instruction once their county has been in the red, or "substantial" tier for at least two weeks.
The state will update each county's data every Tuesday, and if Santa Clara County moved into the "red" tier on the week ending Sept. 12, local schools could reopen as early as Sept. 22. Palo Alto Unified has decided schools won't fully reopen before Oct. 12, even if permissible.
By Tuesday afternoon, the state announced that Santa Clara County has moved to the red tier and that K-12 schools will be able to fully reopen, adhering to public health guidelines, if the county remains in that category for 14 days.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.