For the first time in a year, Palo Alto Unified elementary school students will be able to return to school five days a week in person starting in April, Superintendent Don Austin announced on Tuesday evening.
His announcement followed several critical changes driving school reopenings. Santa Clara County moved into the state's orange tier of public health restrictions on Tuesday. The California Department of Public Health adopted over the weekend new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that halved the recommended spacing between masked students in classrooms from 6 to 3 feet, allowing schools to increase capacity. And in the district, 90% of employees are either fully vaccinated or have received their first COVID-19 vaccine shot, Austin said.
Third through fifth graders will return first on April 19 and kindergarten through second graders on April 26. This only applies to students who are already attending school for hybrid learning. Students in full distance learning will continue taking classes remotely for the rest of the school year. A handful of elementary classrooms have since February been piloting a five-days-a-week model.
Principals and the teachers union requested that the upper elementary students shift to five days a week first, before the younger students, Austin said at Tuesday's school board meeting. No student schedules will change except for kindergarten classes, he said.
Austin said the vaccination rate among employees is a "big change in conditions and part of the reason we're waiting until the 19th to come back fully."
Sixth graders are already back at school four days a week. Reopening plans won't change yet for seventh and eighth graders and high school students, Austin said. Some high school parents of students learning over Zoom from classrooms have voiced concern that they are among very small numbers of students on the campuses.
Currently, about 600 students each are at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools each week, Austin said. He anticipates more students will be interested in coming back to school after spring break and in light of the county moving into the less-restrictive orange tier.
During the school board meeting, several parents urged the district to also reopen the middle and high schools five days a week.
Austin promised further details about the change in reopening plans in a written message this Thursday or Friday.
The principals of Palo Alto and Gunn high schools also announced Tuesday that, with Santa Clara County in the orange tier, they will again be open campuses starting this Wednesday, March 24. This means students will be allowed to leave campus during prep periods and lunch.
The leaders of the teachers and classified unions urged the community to continue to adhere to public health restrictions, even as coronavirus rates improve and restrictions loosen.
"I just want to emphasize how important it is that we all continue to remain vigilant in all of our safety measures so that we keep our students safe, so that we keep our staff safe," California School Employees Association President Meb Steiner said during the school board meeting. "We have all wanted to bring our kids back. Nobody in our district … (has) wanted to be gone from school, but we have always wanted to do it safely."
The board, which is again meeting in person, also discussed creating a virtual learning program for next school year. In a survey, 7.6% of families indicated they would be interested in a fully remote model for the 2021-22 school year. But board members said they're hesitant to ask staff to invest time and resources in creating an entirely new, standalone online school program until they have more concrete information on what families want and need next year. They suggested instead expanding existing models within the schools, such as blended learning, independent study programs and community college options, for students who might need more flexibility.
"There's a way to innovate and serve some students better than honestly they were before the pandemic," said board member Jesse Ladomirak.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.