Hoover Elementary School teacher Victoria Chavez spent the "first" day of school with a small class of first-grade students talking through new norms for in-person learning: no sharing of supplies, how to walk through the classroom while staying 6 feet apart, why hugging is no longer OK. She showed them the designated area where they're allowed to play outside during recess and reminded them to wash their hands after touching their faces.
Chavez had mixed feelings about being back at work in person on Monday. She said she felt nervous about her and her students' safety, but also excited.
"It's been a long seven months," she said. "At the same time, we're still in the middle of a pandemic. I don't think anyone feels completely safe right now."
Chavez and her class were among the first Palo Alto Unified elementary students and teachers to return to their campuses in a hybrid model on Monday, following weeks of heated debate among teachers, parents, administrators and school board members divided over the pace and safety of reopening. The teachers union had pressed the district to keep schools closed until January. But the Board of Education unanimously approved a phased reopening of elementary schools, starting this week with the district's youngest students and adding the higher grades in the coming weeks.
The parents of a little more than half of all transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students opted to send their children to school (about 700) and about half chose to stay with remote learning, according to the district. Classrooms across the 12 elementary schools opened on Monday to serve small cohorts of these students alternating in the mornings and afternoons. Parents were asked to drop their children off from their cars and are not allowed to come onto the campuses.
At Hoover, just four classrooms have reopened — three kindergarten classes and Chavez's first-grade class. Chavez said most of her morning cohort of eight students seemed excited to be back and have so far adjusted well to a school day that looks vastly different than they're used to. She said she was "impressed with how they're taking it all in, realizing that this year is not going to be the same."
After socially distanced snack and recess, her students lined up 6 feet apart and filed inside one by one to wash their hands before returning to their desks, separated by clear plastic barriers.
Because of the staffing necessary to make the hybrid model work, not all students were able to stay with their teachers — a chief concern among some parents who opposed reopening. Chavez herself is getting to know new students. She's now only teaching four students from when the school year started remotely, and they're spread out across two cohorts.
In some cases, there were also too few students to form a fully remote class at one school, so the district combined students from two schools to create a full distance learning class with a single teacher from one site.
"Our teachers and principals worked together to determine who was going into each assignment," Superintendent Don Austin wrote in his weekly update on Friday. "It doesn't mean people aren't anxious. It means the team worked together in the interests of all students."
Nearby at Fairmeadow Elementary School, just one kindergarten classroom and one first-grade classroom reopened on Monday. Students entered on the opposite sides of the campus using separate gates, each decorated with balloons. For kindergarteners, Monday marked their first time coming to school.
The district is using an app to push out daily health screenings to parents the night before school. Any students whose parents didn't fill out the form in advance were kept out of their classroom until the school's secretary called their parents and completed the screening over the phone. (This reporter completed an online health screening using a QR code posted at the front office.)
Inside the first-grade classroom, masked students sat at desks under a large, colorful "welcome" banner. At the front of the classroom, a screen showed the faces of their classmates who are still learning from home. As students talked about their favorite foods, an industrial air purifier whirred loudly in the background. The district purchased $400,000 worth of air purifiers from Georgia, according to Board President Todd Collins, for classrooms whose HVAC systems aren't yet up to airflow standards.
In April, Palo Alto Unified also ordered 500 portable hand-washing stations for rooms that don't have sinks, Collins said, but after learning they won't be delivered until November, sent an employee to Los Angeles to pick up a smaller number of stations to have ready for the early phase of reopening.
Taped to the doorway of each classroom are new checklists, which the school board asked for, to show that the room's ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE) stock and required COVID-19 protocols are being followed. The forms are updated every Wednesday to prepare for the next week. Another sheet documents each room's ventilation status, including filter type and cubic-feet-per-minute airflow rate. There's also a separate disinfection checklist, which the school custodians must check, sign, date and time stamp after cleaning all surfaces daily. (They're using new electrostatic spray devices, which charges antimicrobial liquid as it passes through a nozzle. The positively charged antimicrobial droplets are attracted and cling to negatively charged surfaces, allowing for more efficient cleaning, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.)
Fairmeadow Principal Iris Wong said she was thankful for the phased reopening plan, which will allow the schools to adjust and gain confidence as more students arrive. She, too, said her staff had "mixed emotions" about returning.
"I would be lying if (I said) staff weren't afraid or stressed out," she said, "but at the end of the day, everyone put their best foot forward."
Fairmeadow special education teacher Hyemin Cheung has been back in her classroom with students for two weeks. She said it took weeks of Zoom meetings and conversations to prepare and for her and her classroom aides to feel safe.
Cheung now works with four students full time in person and one who comes only in the afternoons. She said they seem happy and engaged being at school. While she's adjusted classroom activities to reduce contact as much as possible, some of the students can't wear masks due to their disabilities or need help washing their hands. Despite the safety concerns of close contact, Cheung said she knows distance learning wasn't working for these students. Zoom learning also left her feeling unsatisfied as a special education teacher.
"After all, we choose this profession because we love to work with the kids. We love to interact with the kids," she said.
For Cheung, communication is paramount to the success of reopening schools. She said she's constantly checking in with her classroom aides and keeping lines of communication open with administrators.
"It's not about PPE. It's about, 'How do you feel? How safe do you feel?'" she said. "Those comments or questions to ask each other, that will help open the school."
Second- and third-graders are set to return for in-person learning on Oct. 26 and fourth- and fifth-graders on Nov. 9. Under the current plan, middle and high schoolers will not go back to school until January.
For the first time since March, the school board will resume its work in person to coincide with the reopening of schools. The board members will meet at the district office on Tuesday evening to consider approving a partnership with Stanford Health Care to offer district employees biweekly COVID-19 testing, among other items.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.