Palo Alto middle and high schoolers who want to will be able to return to their campuses as soon as March, Superintendent Don Austin said Tuesday night, in a reversal from his warning just a few weeks ago that secondary schools were unlikely to reopen at all this school year.
Seventh graders through high school seniors will still be taking classes on Zoom but will have the option of doing so in a classroom with small groups of classmates and a teacher, he said during Tuesday's school board meeting.
The district plans to put this in place once Santa Clara County has been in the red tier of COVID-19 case rates for five consecutive days. Other local districts are pursuing similar plans, including the neighboring Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District.
This was a welcome announcement for parents who have been lobbying the district to reopen secondary schools — including a group who held a protest outside the district office on Monday — and are increasingly worried about the academic and emotional toll that nearly a year of distance learning is taking on their children. District leadership and board members have consistently supported reopening schools but since late last year been hamstrung by new county and state guidelines that prohibited campuses that weren't already open from offering in-person instruction while the county is in the purple tier. This meant Palo Alto Unified had to pause its previous plan to reopen middle and high schools for hybrid learning in early January.
Teachers, meanwhile, remain worried about the health and safety risks and are asking the community to be empathetic about their fears rather than point fingers. Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association, said during the board meeting that all teachers should be vaccinated before returning to work in person.
"Teachers want to teach ... but things are not normal," Baldwin said. "Teachers aren't lazy or selfish because they are legitimately concerned about their health and the health of their loved ones and their students."
National health experts, including Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, have said vaccination of teachers is not required for the safe reopening of schools. On Tuesday, State Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, called for the immediate vaccination of public school teachers in both San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
Under Palo Alto Unified's new plan, middle and high school teachers would return to their classrooms on March 1 or the day after the county moves into the red tier, if that occurs after March 1. They will continue teaching on Zoom. Austin said the district will neither "mandate or prohibit" livestreaming — teaching students remotely and in-person simultaneously — and will leave that to the discretion of teachers.
"I think being prescriptive right now is not the winning path," he said.
Students who want to be on campuses will be divided into two groups alphabetically. They'll go through their entire class schedule two days a week in a "Zoom from the room" model; Monday will remain a fully remote day for all students. Students won't have to commit to in-person or remote learning and if they aren't feeling well, need to quarantine or don't want to be on campus, they can learn from home.
The district is working with California School Inspections (CSI) to conduct a COVID-19 "readiness inspection" at each middle and high school, which included three days of visual inspections of every building, classroom and physical space at the campuses. Reports from these evaluations will be made public, the district said.
Austin emphasized that the district has four months of reopening experience under its belt at the elementary schools, where there have been positive COVID-19 cases but no spread at the schools. Next week, two Addison Elementary School first grade classrooms will even start piloting five days of in-person instruction.
Sixth graders, who have been decoupled from the secondary schools under new state guidance, are set to return to campuses the first week of March. To date, 58% of sixth grade families have selected in-person learning, Austin said.
Because the board approved a reopening plan in the fall, the new secondary schools model does not require a formal vote.
Board members encouraged parents to give teachers space and support to adjust to being back in the classroom and not push them on any particular model, such as livestreaming.
"There can be a lot of pressure on our teachers to do different things," board member Jennifer DiBrienza said. "Let's just be patient right now."
The high schools' student board representatives urged board members to proactively seek feedback on the new plan from students after they have had time to think through the option of returning to school.
District staff will bring a proposal to the next board meeting to provide COVID-19 testing for secondary school students, Austin said. Employees are currently tested on a biweekly basis.
Austin cautioned that this is a temporary, limited step toward reopening for this school year. The district still hopes to return to normal school — five days a week of in-person learning — in the fall.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.