Palo Alto Unified is not recommending that its middle and high schools reopen with livestreaming in January, which would allow students learning from home to remotely watch classes as they are happening in person.
On a survey of secondary teachers this week, 64% of those who responded said they are "strongly against any form of livestreaming in any circumstance." About 36% disagreed with that statement, and 24% said they would be willing to simultaneously teach students in person and over Zoom. Of 447 secondary teachers, 330 have responded to the survey, according to the district.
Seventy-three percent of secondary students and families, meanwhile, said on a survey that they see livestreaming as a "viable option" for distance learning.
Some high school teachers who called into Tuesday's school board meeting said livestreaming would place an undue burden on teachers and that the district hadn't provided enough information to teachers about how it would work on the ground.
"Teaching via Zoom as we are currently, takes all my attention and skills," said Gunn High School Spanish teacher Elizabeth Matchett. "I think I'm doing it pretty well given its limitations, but I earnestly desire to be with my students … however, the very thought of trying to do both simultaneously makes my head spin."
Superintendent Don Austin said that livestreaming should remain on the table as a potential option but that he's not recommending it right now for the middle and high schools.
"We're very much in favor of continuing with the same distance approach that we have currently," he said. "I feel like there's anxiety around something that we're not proposing."
Teachers also criticized the survey they received as binary, "biased" and lacking explanation of specific proposals and the opportunity to provide open-ended comments.
Palo Alto High School English teacher David Cohen, speaking on behalf of the teachers union, said that sending a survey out to students and families about the viability of livestreaming before it had been fully discussed with teachers is "like offering restaurant patrons a daily special without checking with the chef about what's available."
Paly parent Deb Whitman said if teachers are worried that livestreaming is too big of an ask, "We should be asking them, 'What do you need to make livestreaming work?'"
The district is moving forward with a tentative plan that would continue distance learning as is for the middle and high schools but add the option of a hybrid model that was proposed several months ago, with two groups of students alternating coming to campus two days a week and learning remotely three days a week. Palo Alto Unified teachers will continue to provide online instruction rather than a third-party vendor, which the district had considered.
If asked to make that decision today, 61% of students and families who responded to the survey said they would choose the hybrid model and 39%, full distance learning. But nearly half of respondents said they didn't have enough information to make that decision.
Austin has been a firm advocate for reopening schools as soon as safely possible, particularly for students who are struggling with remote learning and need face-to-face support, despite the fact that the quality of distance learning has improved since schools first closed in the spring.
"There's a difference between being vastly improved and nowhere near the experience of attending a high school," he said. "I just don't want to confuse those two things. You cannot replicate interactions."
In response to a question from Gunn student board representative Thomas Li about whether teachers who don't want to come back to work in person will be forced to, Austin said the district's top focus is student needs. (Employees who have gone through a formal process with human resources for staying at home, such as those with an underlying health condition, will be prioritized, he said.)
Li also told the board that some high school students who plan to choose full distance learning are worried they'll be behind their peers who return to school in person.
"They want equal access to teachers and to course options, instructional hours, synchronous learning," he said. "A lot of students are worried they're going to be indirectly penalized for choosing distance learning because resources or attention will be diverted to hybrid students at their expense."
Board member Jennifer DiBrienza asked whether the district is preparing for the increased risk of families traveling over Thanksgiving and winter break and then students coming to campuses in person. Austin said other school districts are asking families traveling for the holidays to self-quarantine for a certain number of days before returning to schools.
The board will discuss a final version of the reopening plan for secondary schools at its next meeting on Nov. 10. Families will be asked to choose between the hybrid model and committing to full distance learning the next day, on Nov. 11.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.