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.