Stark division over reopening schools spilled over again into Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, when Palo Alto Unified District board members unanimously voted to resume in-person instruction at the middle and high schools over some student, teacher and parent concerns.
Starting on Jan. 7, the Palo Alto school district will reopen its five secondary schools to students who choose a hybrid model that combines in-person and online instruction. Board members and district leadership continued to emphasize their goal of providing this as an option to families, particularly for students who are struggling with distance learning. Board member Jennifer DiBrienza even said she was dismayed the district couldn't bring more students back; with social distancing and staffing, only about 30% of students will be able to return in person. (If more students request the hybrid model, the district will prioritize at-risk and struggling students and then use a lottery system to fill the remaining seats.)
"Let's hopefully take some celebration (in the) moment that we're going to return some percentage of students back to school while some other districts aren't," said Superintendent Don Austin, acknowledging that the reopening plan is "imperfect." "Not coming back is easier. We chose hard. I hope that we're a district that chooses the tougher route every single time."
Numerous speakers, however, worried about the disruption this will cause, particularly for high school juniors and seniors who will likely see their schedules and teachers change as the district redistributes classes to accommodate the hybrid and distance learning models. Many said that distance learning is now working well — much better than in the spring when schools first closed — and that returning for only two in-person classes will not reap the desired academic or social benefits. Some said they felt the reopening plan still lacked concrete details that families need to make the binding decision for how their students will attend school for the second semester.
"Why disrupt something that is perfectly stable during such unstable times?" asked Justin Brown, a Gunn High School English teacher.
Starting Wednesday, the district is giving families a week to choose between the hybrid model or full distance learning for the rest of the school year. They'll also be able to indicate in the event that the hybrid model is overcapacity, that they are fine sticking with distance learning instead.
The hybrid model will look slightly different at the middle and high schools. Sixth graders who opt in will be assigned to cohorts of 30 to 60 students with two to four teachers. They will attend school in person for half days on Tuesdays and Thursdays (and the other half of the day, learning from home) and full days on Wednesdays and Fridays. The district is planning to bring the sixth graders — who have never attended their schools in person — back a week before the upper grades to help them transition.
Seventh and eighth graders will be in cohorts of about 45 students with three teachers. They will attend school in person in the mornings for English language arts, history-social science and science classes, and then have the rest of their classes online after lunch.
The high schoolers, who will be in cohorts of 30 to 60 students with two to four teachers, will be on campus in person for only English and history-social science classes during one of three possible period blocks — first and second, third and fourth or sixth and seventh periods.
Criticisms of the plan mostly focused on the high schools. Students and college counselors said that a mid-year change in teachers will be challenging for juniors hoping to seek letters of recommendation for college applications and that seniors will have to report any course changes to each individual college they applied to.
Several speakers also voiced concern that electives will be cut as the district shifts to accommodate the hybrid model, but district staff clarified that it's unrelated to the reopening; courses with low enrollment would be eliminated at the second semester during a normal school year.
With the reopening, online class sizes will increase, though no class will have more than 39 students, district staff said. The district will not offer livestreaming, despite a petition from a group of parents asking for a pilot livestreaming program.
Associate Superintendent of Education Services Sharon Ofek said that livestreaming is demanding on teachers and pedagogically, an unsound instructional model.
"Livestreaming is at face value something this appealing to people but in reality, when we look at what that entails and what that requires on behalf of an individual teacher, it doesn't pan out the way people think it will. What we're trying to do is provide quality of instruction over providing a mediocre program," she said.
The student school board representatives, both high school seniors, cast their provisional votes against the reopening plan.
"I think the tradeoffs are not worth it," said Gunn student board representative Thomas Li. "The benefits are very marginal. I don't think the plan is really meeting our goals. There's so much that's blurry at this point."
Palo Alto High School student board representative Medha Atla said distance learning has been fine for her academically, but as an only child who sees few people her own age, incredibly lonely.
"I really, really want to go back to campus," she said. "At the same (time), I don't think one to two classes are worth disrupting the schedules of so many students."
The presidents of the Gunn and Paly PTSAs and the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, meanwhile, spoke in support of reopening.
"Some students are thriving; some are tolerating; and some are suffering," said Gunn PTSA president Kimberly Eng Lee. "We need to support them all. It's time to make plans to bring student activities and supports back to campus."
The secondary schools reopening discussion again highlighted fraught communication issues between teachers and the district. Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin said there wasn't any teacher input into the plan and that it came to the union "after it was already finished" last week. (The union opposes the reopening plan.) District staff, meanwhile, said that site administrators discussed the plan with teacher instructional leaders, school educational councils and in department meetings.
This disconnect, which also happened with the elementary school reopening, prompted the board to vote to formally direct staff to take input from instructional leaders as they continue to refine the reopening plan over the next two months.
Many questions around how specific elements of the reopening will shake out — schedule changes, class sizes and the like — will remain unanswered until the district knows how many middle and high school students choose the hybrid model. Families have until Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. to make a decision.
In other business Tuesday, the school board unanimously extended Austin's employment contract to June 2024. Some community members protested the placement of the proposed contract extension on the board’s consent calendar — which is typically approved without discussion — and asked for greater transparency.
Last June, the board approved a one-year extension for Austin's contract, extending it until June 2022. The latest contract extension, as well as ones for four other senior administrators, should have taken place this June but fell by the wayside until now due to the pandemic, board President Todd Collins said. The board gave Austin a satisfactory performance evaluation in June, which typically is followed by a contract extension.
Collins apologized for the delay, which he said was his failure, but described Austin's contract extension as "customary and routine."