News

Amid ongoing reopening anxieties, school district to provide COVID-19 testing for staff

Palo Alto Unified also plans to form task force to evaluate communication following criticisms

Kindergarten teacher Sara McNinch helps one of her students on the first day of in-person instruction at Fairmeadow Elementary School in Palo Alto on Oct. 12. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Starting next week, employees of the Palo Alto Unified School District will have access to free, biweekly COVID-19 testing to be provided on campus by Stanford Health Care.

The school board unanimously approved a one-year testing agreement with Stanford on Tuesday, the day after about 700 transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students and their teachers returned to classrooms in person in a hybrid model.

The testing will begin at JLS Middle School on Oct. 21, according to the district. Stanford employees will help staff collect their first sample but afterward, staff can self-collect under the supervision of a trained health care worker provided by the district. They will use pooled sampling testing procedures on a biweekly basis. Employees who test positive will be called directly. The district can also request aggregated test results, according to the agreement.

Board members — who met in person with a small group of staff, all wearing masks, for the first time since March — described the testing as "essential" and encouraged teachers and staff to take advantage of the service. The testing will not be available to students, but they also urged families to get tested regularly at free sites in the community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week that recommends K-12 schools prioritize testing for students, teachers and staff showing COVID-19 symptoms and those who have had close contacts with confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases.

Superintendent Don Austin warned that because health care providers are picking up the bill for the testing, the district's health care premiums will increase next year without some relief from the government. He's lobbying the state to prevent districts from absorbing this financial burden.

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Meb Steiner, president of the classified employees union, said testing is not only important from a public health standpoint but also to help employees, students and families "to feel more comfortable about (the) in-person return."

Steiner and Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union, continued to voice concerns about safety issues at the schools and employees' ongoing anxiety about returning to work in person. Baldwin said teachers have been unable to take breaks because there weren't additional staff provided to supervise students during recess and lunchtimes. And teachers who are teaching both in-person and distance-learning students need more support, she said. Baldwin also asked that paper towels be available in all school bathrooms so students don't have to touch air dryers, and criticized plastic barriers at student desks as "flimsy" and distorting their vision.

"We have asked our teachers to go above and beyond and they have," Baldwin said. "I just am afraid that the morale is going to get even worse and our mental health of our professionals is not going to be considered. It needs to be."

Fairmeadow Principal Iris Wong told the board that reopening has been stressful, including principals who are now tasked with overseeing health and safety procedures while keeping staff morale up.

"I would do us a short service if I didn't say it was stressful for everybody, including me right now — I'm very nervous talking," Wong said. "This whole process for the last few months has been literally tears and sweat put (in) by everybody who's had a part in opening day."

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The elementary schools are now preparing for the next phase of reopening, with second- and third-graders who opt in set to return on Oct. 26 and fourth- and fifth-graders on Nov. 9. Austin said he'll bring to the upcoming board meeting the next steps on reopening the middle and high schools in January.

The concerns came despite the district's efforts to make the initial phase of reopening as smooth and safe as possible, including purchasing commercial-grade air filters to improve air quality in classrooms, posting checklists to verify classrooms are safe to reopen and posting on the district website a new weekly report on any positive COVID-19 cases. (Three staff members have tested positive since August, according to the report.)

Board members said communication issues both internal and external are contributing to the disconnect between the district's efforts and teachers not feeling safe. Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza recently proposed the district hire a full-time public information officer to oversee communications, a position that's been criticized in the past for lacking teeth, including by current board members.

Austin instead recommended on Tuesday that the district form a task force to determine where the gaps are with communication and how to best address them, a direction all of the board members supported.

"I'd like to know ... what problem we're trying to solve before we jump in," he said. "I think just slowing it down (and) putting some real targeted thought behind it might get us to a better outcome."

While Austin pointed to the volume of communication the district has put out in the last seven months as evidence of effort in this area, board members said it's not the quantity of information but rather making it more accessible to the public.

"In the past my concern was that the goal of the public information officer or PR person, which is what I preferred to call them at the time, was to burnish the district's image in the media and with stakeholders," said board member Ken Dauber. "I think that the right goal for this role … is to communicate useful information effectively to stakeholders both internal and external … in a way that's relevant and easily consumable."

The new communications task force will be led by staff and make recommendations to Austin at a future date.

------

How would the candidates vote?

As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the nonincumbent 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 if the candidates would support the partnership with Stanford Health Care to provide biweekly COVID-19 testing to district employees.

Katie Causey: Yes. This testing is necessary for our employees' safety. We must also continue to lobby for legislative relief so our staff does not face high premiums.

Jesse Ladomirak: Yes, I would absolutely vote to approve the agreement.

Matt Nagle: I would have voted yes, but I would have done it in August when the Los Angeles Unified School District contracted with Stanford University. LAUSD is also testing students; why are we not?

Karna Nisewaner: I would vote yes. I think testing has a significant value for the peace of mind of teachers and staff, as reflected in Section VII of the tentative agreement with PAEA (Palo Alto Educators Association) that requires this to be offered. I understand there is a potential for a future increase in health care costs, but I think the value to teachers and staff outweighs this concern.

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Amid ongoing reopening anxieties, school district to provide COVID-19 testing for staff

Palo Alto Unified also plans to form task force to evaluate communication following criticisms

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Oct 14, 2020, 9:38 am

Starting next week, employees of the Palo Alto Unified School District will have access to free, biweekly COVID-19 testing to be provided on campus by Stanford Health Care.

The school board unanimously approved a one-year testing agreement with Stanford on Tuesday, the day after about 700 transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students and their teachers returned to classrooms in person in a hybrid model.

The testing will begin at JLS Middle School on Oct. 21, according to the district. Stanford employees will help staff collect their first sample but afterward, staff can self-collect under the supervision of a trained health care worker provided by the district. They will use pooled sampling testing procedures on a biweekly basis. Employees who test positive will be called directly. The district can also request aggregated test results, according to the agreement.

Board members — who met in person with a small group of staff, all wearing masks, for the first time since March — described the testing as "essential" and encouraged teachers and staff to take advantage of the service. The testing will not be available to students, but they also urged families to get tested regularly at free sites in the community. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance this week that recommends K-12 schools prioritize testing for students, teachers and staff showing COVID-19 symptoms and those who have had close contacts with confirmed or probable COVID-19 cases.

Superintendent Don Austin warned that because health care providers are picking up the bill for the testing, the district's health care premiums will increase next year without some relief from the government. He's lobbying the state to prevent districts from absorbing this financial burden.

Meb Steiner, president of the classified employees union, said testing is not only important from a public health standpoint but also to help employees, students and families "to feel more comfortable about (the) in-person return."

Steiner and Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union, continued to voice concerns about safety issues at the schools and employees' ongoing anxiety about returning to work in person. Baldwin said teachers have been unable to take breaks because there weren't additional staff provided to supervise students during recess and lunchtimes. And teachers who are teaching both in-person and distance-learning students need more support, she said. Baldwin also asked that paper towels be available in all school bathrooms so students don't have to touch air dryers, and criticized plastic barriers at student desks as "flimsy" and distorting their vision.

"We have asked our teachers to go above and beyond and they have," Baldwin said. "I just am afraid that the morale is going to get even worse and our mental health of our professionals is not going to be considered. It needs to be."

Fairmeadow Principal Iris Wong told the board that reopening has been stressful, including principals who are now tasked with overseeing health and safety procedures while keeping staff morale up.

"I would do us a short service if I didn't say it was stressful for everybody, including me right now — I'm very nervous talking," Wong said. "This whole process for the last few months has been literally tears and sweat put (in) by everybody who's had a part in opening day."

The elementary schools are now preparing for the next phase of reopening, with second- and third-graders who opt in set to return on Oct. 26 and fourth- and fifth-graders on Nov. 9. Austin said he'll bring to the upcoming board meeting the next steps on reopening the middle and high schools in January.

The concerns came despite the district's efforts to make the initial phase of reopening as smooth and safe as possible, including purchasing commercial-grade air filters to improve air quality in classrooms, posting checklists to verify classrooms are safe to reopen and posting on the district website a new weekly report on any positive COVID-19 cases. (Three staff members have tested positive since August, according to the report.)

Board members said communication issues both internal and external are contributing to the disconnect between the district's efforts and teachers not feeling safe. Trustee Jennifer DiBrienza recently proposed the district hire a full-time public information officer to oversee communications, a position that's been criticized in the past for lacking teeth, including by current board members.

Austin instead recommended on Tuesday that the district form a task force to determine where the gaps are with communication and how to best address them, a direction all of the board members supported.

"I'd like to know ... what problem we're trying to solve before we jump in," he said. "I think just slowing it down (and) putting some real targeted thought behind it might get us to a better outcome."

While Austin pointed to the volume of communication the district has put out in the last seven months as evidence of effort in this area, board members said it's not the quantity of information but rather making it more accessible to the public.

"In the past my concern was that the goal of the public information officer or PR person, which is what I preferred to call them at the time, was to burnish the district's image in the media and with stakeholders," said board member Ken Dauber. "I think that the right goal for this role … is to communicate useful information effectively to stakeholders both internal and external … in a way that's relevant and easily consumable."

The new communications task force will be led by staff and make recommendations to Austin at a future date.

------

How would the candidates vote?

As part of the Palo Alto Weekly's election coverage, we will be asking the nonincumbent 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 if the candidates would support the partnership with Stanford Health Care to provide biweekly COVID-19 testing to district employees.

Katie Causey: Yes. This testing is necessary for our employees' safety. We must also continue to lobby for legislative relief so our staff does not face high premiums.

Jesse Ladomirak: Yes, I would absolutely vote to approve the agreement.

Matt Nagle: I would have voted yes, but I would have done it in August when the Los Angeles Unified School District contracted with Stanford University. LAUSD is also testing students; why are we not?

Karna Nisewaner: I would vote yes. I think testing has a significant value for the peace of mind of teachers and staff, as reflected in Section VII of the tentative agreement with PAEA (Palo Alto Educators Association) that requires this to be offered. I understand there is a potential for a future increase in health care costs, but I think the value to teachers and staff outweighs this concern.

Comments

Schools Serve Students
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 14, 2020 at 12:01 pm
Schools Serve Students, Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 14, 2020 at 12:01 pm
34 people like this

@ Baldwin: "We have asked our teachers to go above and beyond and they have," Baldwin said. "I just am afraid that the morale is going to get even worse and our mental health of our professionals is not going to be considered. It needs to be."

Teachers doing their job is "above and beyond"? Teacher mental health issues?

That's the problem right there with the Teachers Union. Thousands and thousands of people are back to work, or never stopped working period, doing their jobs. Like the teachers need to do. If testing helps give the teachers peace of mind, great. But this overly powerful teachers union needs to stop with the unfounded histrionics, and teachers acting like they're doing their students a favor by getting back to the jobs they are being paid to do, like the rest of us, a long line of professionals and essential workers working since March who never took breaks and have been supporting teachers comfortable at home this entire time, people who need their kids in school. The teachers need to face the reality that they will have to teach on site at some point, or find another line of work. We can't wait indefinitely for schools to open. We are in the orange tier now, it's been 8 long months, please stop whining. School systems are designed to serve students (which I'm glad Austin has finally stood up to the union and acknowledged), schools around the world are open, and SCC and public health experts around the country say it's safe to get back to school. As of Oct 6, CA top Health Officer has stated there is NO evidence that virus is spreading in CA schools that have opened (thousands of private schools who did right by their students and communities):

Web Link

In terms of mental health issues, it's the kids/teens we need to be worried about (Baldwin's statement about the teachers' mental health, without her mentioning students' mental health, is offensive). Isolation, depression, suicide attempts skyrocketing, a Gunn HS student suicide already. The district serves the students, not the other way around. It's time the Teachers Union and Baldwin wrap their heads around that. Thousands of private school students are back in person in CA, and most students across the nation and around the world are already back in person. It's frankly disgusting to hear the Teachers Union President whining about the teachers mental health instead of the thousands of students stuck at home. It's documented that 25% of young people have considered suicide. The burden of mitigating the risk has fallen squarely on our students.

I'm a teacher. Open PA schools K-12 now. Vote for Board Members who will make that happen.


Get back to in person learning
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2020 at 2:25 pm
Get back to in person learning, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Oct 14, 2020 at 2:25 pm
31 people like this

I couldn't agree more about schools serve the students. I'm so fed up with the teacher's union preventing these kids from going back to school. Kids aren't moving their bodies, suffering from mental health issues, not getting school meals, and experiencing vision problems from all their online time. I'm voting against everything thing the teacher's union has endorsed in this election.


Facts and Figures
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 14, 2020 at 2:54 pm
Facts and Figures, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Oct 14, 2020 at 2:54 pm
15 people like this

If you haven't voted, remember to vote with school openings in mind.

Also, why aren't students being tested on a voluntary basis, even with their own insurance if the District will not pay. We need ON-SITE testing 2x per week for every student who wants it. This is the way to stop a shutdown.

Finally, there still is no mandate to stream home for students in quarantine or feeling ill? Does no one see the problem with this?


The Voice of Palo Alto
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Oct 14, 2020 at 3:32 pm
The Voice of Palo Alto, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Oct 14, 2020 at 3:32 pm
34 people like this

What a couple of misguided posts above and one coming from a teacher no less..

1. What is all the whining about when the schools are now opened? You got your way and you are STILL complaining. Really great move to reopen during a raging pandemic! Really smart.

2. Blaming the teachers and teachers union for the pandemic is embarrassing. Blame the government. Blame people not listening to the health officials.

3. “Teachers doing their job is "above and beyond"? Teacher mental health issues?”

Yes. You might not be afraid and you might have a different opinion, but some teachers are afraid. So what? Day in and day out, teachers are going to go into work and wonder if they will get the virus and get sick or die, or get the virus and pass it on to a family member that will get sick and die. That’s so terrible of the teachers! You can show some empathy just because your opinion is different! How nasty. They are people too. Here is an example out of Alabama:

Web Link

4. “which I'm glad Austin has finally stood up to the union and acknowledged”
Stop making Austin out to be the “great hero that stood up to the teachers union.” He’s not. In my opinion, he just wanted to be the first to reopen. A great leader would have listened to the majority of parents and the majority of staff that did not want to return. You have the opposite opinion so suddenly “Austin stood up to the powerful
Union.”

5. “schools around the world are open”
I’m so tired of seeing this posted. For the last time, other countries aren’t averaging approximately 50,000 new cases and approximately 1000 new deaths a day like the U.S. Other countries got the disease under control first. What an uninformed opinion!

6. “But this overly powerful teachers union needs to stop with the unfounded histrionics, and teachers acting like they're doing their students a favor by getting back to the jobs they are being paid to do, like the rest of us, a long line of professionals and essential workers working since March who never took breaks and have been supporting teachers comfortable at home this entire time, people who need their kids in school.“

Unions fight for worker health and safety. First, please give up all or any other work provisions provided by the great teachers unions since you hate it so much. Second, teachers HAVE BEEN working online so stating they haven’t is a misinformation. Once the pandemic is under control, parents can drop their kids off since they need it so badly. Not the other way around. Health and safety come FIRST.

7. “School systems are designed to serve students/In terms of mental health issues, it's the kids/teens we need to be worried about (Baldwin's statement about the teachers' mental health, without her mentioning students' mental health, is offensive)“

Another completely misguided statement. It’s NOT the president of the teachers union’s JOB to protect the mental health of the students. The UNION WORKS FOR THE SATFF. The students are not on the payroll. It’s the unions job to backup their workers which is exactly what the president of the union is doing. As far as “schools serve students.” Yes. But it’s also only a job. Teachers aren’t doctors. They didn’t sign up to deal with a deadly virus. Blame the virus and not the frightened teachers.

8. “I'm so fed up with the teacher's union preventing these kids from going back to school.”

The teachers unions aren’t preventing students from returning. They have started returning first of all. Second, it was the government officials that made up these tiered systems. Get your facts straight and stop with the hysterics.

9. “As of Oct 6, CA top Health Officer has stated there is NO evidence that virus is spreading in CA schools that have opened”

This isn’t the “end all be all” of evidence. Great. SOME students have returned with a huge amount of health measures meant to mitigate the risk or spread and some far it has worked. That doesn’t mean when you “open the floodgates” and let ALL students return there won’t be a spread or increased transmission. Also, it doesn’t mean that there haven’t been ANY coronavirus cases in schools, it just possibly hasn’t caused increased community spread. Also, these school cases are being underreported. Oh a quick search and here is a link for evidence of confirmed cases of students and staff(even if transmission didn’t necessarily happen at school):

Web Link

Again, you got your way. Austin reopened so what are all of these hysterics about here? Again, if you don’t like all of the benefits of being in the union and are so against the union, then give up your union benefits. Don’t try to be the “special teacher” fighting with the parents against the “evil union.” It’s embarrassing. Finally, at the very least, have a little bit of understanding for your coworkers who are scared even if you aren’t.


Former teacher
Registered user
Barron Park
on Oct 15, 2020 at 9:42 am
Former teacher, Barron Park
Registered user
on Oct 15, 2020 at 9:42 am
19 people like this

Whether you worked in an office or at home, I bet you could go to the bathroom whenever you needed. Teachers can’t. Would you feel completely comfortable sitting in a room with 20 unmasked students eating your lunch? I’m not sure I would. I don’t think it is unreasonable for teachers to want a break in the day.

In the Before Time, the normal day in an elementary classroom would flow between whole group, small groups, and individual work at seats. That’s no longer possible, so teachers must totally reimagine their classrooms and how they teach. It isn’t an easy job and I wish folks would try to be a little more understanding.


Annoyed Mouse
Registered user
Professorville
on Oct 15, 2020 at 10:44 am
Annoyed Mouse, Professorville
Registered user
on Oct 15, 2020 at 10:44 am
14 people like this

Thanks @former teacher! Appreciate the support. Hey community, keep in mind that this is the THIRD time since March that we’ve completely redesigned our jobs. This in the midst of a pandemic, with an administration that is mostly focused on PR wins and getting over on teachers. There’s so much more to this his than just “do what you always do, but on Zoom. Teachers are already maxed out and this latest transition has elementary resources going beyond their limits. And, as professionals we need to be patient and caring of our students. There is human cost to this. Morale is rock bottom. Remember the long pause when Caswell asked Austin “what are you going to do about morale?” at that momentous Board meeting two weeks ago? That lack of understanding has a human cost. Our health affects the educational experience your child will have. Brace yourselves secondary staff and families. It is a rough ride. The happy talk PR from PAUSD is not even remotely the full story.


S_mom
Registered user
Community Center
on Oct 15, 2020 at 1:05 pm
S_mom, Community Center
Registered user
on Oct 15, 2020 at 1:05 pm
10 people like this

I have been in favor of reopening and giving families choices. But, I do think the first week or two back is/will be stressful for teachers and even more so for administrators. Our school principal looks like she is doing the job of 3 people when checking kids in and out of school. Even over the first three days the process has been streamlined and better though, so I think it will be worked out and feel normal quite soon. I'm not sure more planning could have helped though -- some of it just needed to be tried to see how it would work.

They definitely need to hire people to supervise recess and lunch -- teachers deserve a break during the day!


district teacher
Registered user
Midtown
on Oct 16, 2020 at 5:49 pm
district teacher, Midtown
Registered user
on Oct 16, 2020 at 5:49 pm
18 people like this

Thank you to those who support teachers and our hard work. Yes, morale is really low and we are exhausted. When I read or hear that teachers don't care about students or are selfish, I think to myself [and am saying 'out loud' for the first time], "So, teachers are trained to build physical barriers and figure out paths to safety to protect children from shooters with the expectation that we'd throw our bodies in front of kids to protect them [I would], and WE are the selfish ones. Please." I understand that the comments in these threads don't represent the vast majority of families we work with who are kind, patient, supportive, and generous. Everyone else: stop and think about what you are saying or publishing. (Better yet, put yourself into the subsititue pool...)

So, DO and Board, how will you address morale? Good luck to my elementary colleagues. Hang in there.


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