Despite mounting concerns from some teachers and parents about the safety of returning to schools in person, the school board voted unanimously late Tuesday evening to begin a staggered reopening of campuses in two weeks.
The board's decision came after lengthy public comment, including from many teachers, staff members and parents who urged the trustees to delay the reopening. The teachers union circulated an open letter this week asking the board and Superintendent Don Austin to continue with full distance learning until at least January, citing "gaps" and unanswered questions in the district's reopening plan. More than 300 parents signed a separate letter asking the trustees to postpone their decision on a plan they argue "hurts the quality of education while increasing risk, all without parent and teacher support."
The district will first bring transitional kindergarten students through first-graders back to school in a hybrid model on Oct. 12, then second- and third-graders on Oct. 26 and fourth- and fifth-graders on Nov. 9. Middle and high schoolers will not return until January. Elementary parents are being asked to commit to either hybrid or full-distance learning for the rest of the school year, a decision some parents took issue with and asked for more flexibility around.
As of Tuesday evening, 66.5%, or 446 parents, of transitional kindergarten through first-grade students had chosen the hybrid model, while 33.5%, or 225 parents, had selected full-distance learning, according to the district. By Wednesday morning, 478 parents had committed to the hybrid model and 300 to remote learning. Families with children in these grades have until the end of day on Wednesday to make their choice.
The meeting further illustrated a disconnect between teachers and the district, with teachers voicing anxiety about their campuses lacking the proper safety preparation or not yet receiving the personal protective equipment (PPE) they've asked for. District leadership said that each elementary school has already received their allotted personal protective equipment, though it might not have been distributed yet to all classrooms. The district also has ordered additional face shields, portable hand-washing stations for classrooms without sinks, desk dividers and air purifiers, and created a ticketing system to prevent safety requests or complaints from falling through the cracks.
Board members expressed concern and district leadership expressed some frustration at the inability to bridge the communication gap with teachers, despite 19 collective bargaining sessions over the last six months and a memorandum of understanding that both the district and union have agreed to.
Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin said on Tuesday that 90% of elementary teachers who responded to a union survey are not comfortable going back to school in September, October or November.
"I've asked the very direct question ... what have we not done that would sway the percentage and the answer I was given is 'nothing,'" Austin said. "If the answer is 'nothing is going to change that number,' then we don't have anywhere else to go."
Baldwin told the board that the reopening plan feels rushed, pointing to some Bay Area districts that have decided to stick with full remote learning through the end of 2020.
"Teachers don't feel heard," she said. "Please listen to them."
The district plans to form a committee of teachers from each elementary school to provide feedback on what's working and what isn't as campuses reopen.
Some parents also worried that choosing distance or in-person learning could mean their child will lose their teacher since the district will have to reassign staff to meet the needs of students in the different models. Austin said giving families another point in the school year to assess and change their decision is up to the board. Some trustees expressed support for doing so while noting that the tradeoff for providing families with more decision points is less certainty about teachers and classes staying together.
"Should I choose to prioritize my child's physical safety in the short term or should I give more importance to her mental well-being for the long term? asked parent Roxanne Patel. "Shouldn't we be prioritizing safety over speed?"
Other parents, meanwhile, backed the reopening plan.
"Distance learning has been a disaster for our family, not only for our son and his ability to learn, but for us as parents in trying to support him while both working full-time jobs. This can't go on," said Ryan Elliott. "You have the support of many of the parents who are afraid to speak out because this is such a politically divided issue."
Board members said they were assured by the district's work on the reopening plan. They also voted to direct staff to present a safety report at their next meeting and asked that every classroom that reopens has a checklist to ensure it's meeting the guidelines for doing so.
"I do think we have a responsibility to open for the many, many families that have been waiting for this and are ready for it," Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza said.
This week, after further negotiations with the teachers union, the district revised the elementary school schedule to include a daily, live Zoom meeting every morning that includes both the at-home and in-person cohorts of the class. "Specials" teachers who usually provide lessons like art and music to multiple classrooms will only teach kindergartners in person to reduce their exposure to multiple groups of students.
Some Palo Alto Unified campuses reopened in recent weeks to serve small groups of high-need students, and more special education students returned to school this Monday.
The district invited Monika Roy, an assistant health officer and communicable disease controller at the Santa Clara County Public Health Department, to answer board member questions about stable cohorts, social distancing and procedures in the event of positive COVID-19 cases at schools. Trustee Ken Dauber asked Roy directly whether it's safe for elementary schools to reopen, following the guidelines provided by the Public Health Department.
"Our role and the guidance is meant to provide guardrails on schools that are considering reopening of how to do so as safely as possible and how to reduce risk of disease transmission as much as possible," she responded.
School leaders are proposing the district partner with Stanford Health Care to provide regular testing to employees, a partnership that's already in place in the Menlo Park City School District, which opened in a hybrid model this week. A representative from Stanford provided an overview at the board meeting about how the testing would work.
Trustee Melissa Baten Caswell, who said she felt "uncomfortable" about approving a plan that teachers don't fully support, also pointed to the fact that one city over in Menlo Park, kindergarten and first-grade students went back to school this week.
"If we missed something they're doing for safety that we think we need to do, let's do it -- but I don't think moving this decision point to January makes it any better," she said. "We're going to have the exact same conversations in January. ... Let's try it now while we have these ways to stretch out and see how we can get it to work."
The school board's next meeting is on Oct. 13, the day after elementary schools will reopen for the district's youngest students. The trustees plan to meet in person for the first time since March.
How would the candidates vote?
As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the non-incumbent candidates running for the Palo Alto Board of Education how they would vote — and why — on significant issues that the board takes action on before November.
This week, the Weekly asked how the candidates would vote on the district's schools reopening plan.
Katie Causey: I would vote 'no.' We can’t expect a safe, productive learning environment if educators, students and families don’t feel safe. Months of changing guidelines shows there’s still a lot we do not know about COVID-19; we’ve struggled to communicate effectively as those guidelines have changed.
Jesse Ladomirak: I would vote to approve. I support giving elementary families another decision-point in January. I agree with creating a site-specific checklist for each school that details the safety measures in place and, in the interest of transparency and accountability, I would also ask the district to commit to reporting weekly to the community on safety conditions and general progress of the hybrid model.
Matt Nagle: I would vote 'no' on the current plan because they are rushing ahead not fully prepared, and I would vote 'yes' on a revised plan that includes one or two pilot programs, such as the one that Nixon staff spoke about at the (Sept. 22) board meeting.
Karna Nisewaner: I would vote 'yes' because I believe that many elementary students want and need in-person instruction to learn and the district is implementing a plan to adhere to county safety guidelines. For the families who currently do not feel safe, they have the option of distance learning, while the administration continues to refine their plans so that all families and teachers feel safe and supported.