These come as welcome changes for district leaders and teachers following more than a year of remote classes. Part of the optimism comes from reports of high vaccination rates among employees: Palo Alto Unified, Mountain View-Los Altos Union High, Mountain View Whisman and Foothill-DeAnza Community College school districts all have reported a vaccination rate of more than 90% among staff and faculty.
"I'm super excited," said David Campbell, president of the Mountain View-Los Altos teachers' union, who also teaches spanish at Mountain View High. "And every teacher I've spoken with is super excited."
Some parents are equally, if not more, eager to get their children back to class. But others, especially parents of elementary school students, are left with concerns about how their districts are preparing for their children's return given the surge of COVID-19 cases from the delta variant and the fact that children under 12 still don't have access to a vaccine.
Palo Alto father Mark Noronha, whose son is entering third grade and daughter is starting high school, said his biggest frustration lies with what he characterizes as lax protocols from the Palo Alto school district, which make no mention of daily health screeners or methods to track students in case of outbreaks. (Mountain View Whisman and Foothill-DeAnza have screeners.)
"There's a sense of inevitability here, saying that an outbreak is inevitable," Noronha said. "It shows up in the different ways people talk — you can start feeling a sense that it's going to happen."
With a new school year fast approaching, parents are now forced to quickly decide: Should I send my child back to school or potentially put them through another year of distance learning?
"A lot of people are extremely concerned and feeling pressured, saying that we don't really have options," Noronha said.
Through a California Public Records Act request, the Weekly obtained results of internal surveys conducted at four Santa Clara County school districts that tracked the vaccination status of all employees. The surveys were done in response to a May 18 county health order that required employers to maintain a record of their personnel's vaccination progress. (The order was rescinded on June 21.)
At Palo Alto Unified, 95% of district employees reported that they were fully vaccinated, as of July 7.
The remaining 5% of responses are from employees who received a second dose but hadn't reached the two-week mark at the time of the survey, had only received a first dose, were not vaccinated or declined to answer.
Mountain View Whisman, a district that serves fewer than 5,000 elementary school students, reported a vaccination rate of 91% among faculty and staff, as of July 29.
Out of the 674 employees accounted for in the survey: 612 or 91% reported that they were vaccinated; 29 or 4.3% of respondents said they were unvaccinated; 2 or .3% declined to state their vaccination status; and 32 employees or 4.7% did not respond.
Mountain View Los Altos Union High, which has a student population of more than 4,000, reported that 97.7% of its employees were fully vaccinated.
However, the percentage was based on a response rate of "slightly over" 50% when the data was collected in the first week of July, according to Debbie Maher, executive assistant to the superintendent. The latest data results provided also did not provide figures for the unvaccinated or those who declined to state their status.
At Foothill-De Anza Community College, 91% of staff reported they were vaccinated based on a survey conducted between May 24 and May 26.
The rate is based on 1,239 responses to a survey that was sent to 2,811 people — a 44% response rate — who make up the college districts' three employee mailing lists, which constantly varies in number, according to Becky Bartindale, coordinator of communications and public affairs.
The district recently approved a vaccination mandate policy for its employees and students, which will take effect this fall, following the footsteps of the University of California and private institutions such as Stanford University.
The policy applies to any one who accesses the campus or receives an in-person service from the district that may be off site, except in cases where a medical or religious exemption is approved.
No choice but to return
Presidents of local district teachers' unions expressed confidence, and excitement, in coming back to class rather than juggling cohorts of students in person and at home for another year.
Sean Dechter, president of Mountain View Educators Association, which represents teachers of the Mountain View Whisman district, said he felt safe coming back to campus in part thanks to the district's vaccination rate.
"The district has made safety a number one priority," he said.
Similarly, Campbell, of the Mountain View-Los Altos district, lauded his district's efforts to prepare teachers and students for in-person learning. He pointed to precautionary measures such as masks and changes to the classroom, including overhead speakers, which make it easier for teachers to project their voice.
From a personal perspective, Campbell said he would prefer if everyone around him were fully vaccinated. As union president, however, he said he understands there are "exceptions to every rule."
"We do have, of course, some members who have medical exemptions and others who might not feel comfortable getting the vaccine, but I would say that those are few and far between," he said.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators' Association, wrote in an email that her district won't be able to reach a 100% vaccination rate since some teachers "medically cannot receive a vaccine." Still, she expressed "cautious optimism" that the district will have "somewhat of a 'normal' year.
"There will still be masks and some social distancing while eating, but it will be nice for everyone not to have to teach and learn through Zoom," she said.
But even with the high vaccination rates at local districts, some believe it's not enough. On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Becker and East Palo Alto City Council member Antonio Lopez called on local school districts to implement a vaccination mandate for employees.
"Even if 80% or 90% of teachers and staff are vaccinated, what if your kid is interacting with the other 10% to 20%?" Becker said. "Let's put our kids first."
The vaccination rates among staff don't assuage all parents' worries about their children's health. Some A group of Palo Alto Unified parents of elementary school students are expressing alarm by what they felt was a significant rollback in COVID-19 protocols while their children remain ineligible to be vaccinated. The recent spike in delta variant cases also has added another layer of fear and uncertainty.
Current studies indicate that the variant is highly transmissible — as much as chickenpox, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but the extent of its impact remains unknown.
Leo Hochberg, a Palo Alto parent with a rising third grader and fifth grader, said he's less concerned about transmission from teachers or staff than transmissions between younger unvaccinated kids and the district's plan to try and mitigate the problem.
"Given that we've seen a rise with this delta variant ... I was just disappointed to see that it seems like the district doesn't really acknowledge the existence of the delta variant," he said.
On Monday, Hochberg posted his concerns to the Nextdoor app, which resonated with some other parents, including Mark Noronha.
"There's a lot of parents who talked about the social and emotional impact of not being not in school. There's no parent that does not acknowledge that," Noronha said. "But there's the other issue, which is, what is the long term impact of COVID on kids?
Noronha outlined his concerns on Wednesday in an online petition urging the district to enforce stronger health protocols. The petition has since received 112 signatures. In it, he calls for some adjustments to the district's upcoming academic year, including making masks mandatory outdoors at all times, except when students are eating, and daily testing for the unvaccinated.
Kelly Ranger, the parent of a first grade student in the Palo Alto school district, echoed similar sentiments about the district's protocols this academic year. Before the delta variant cases, Ranger and her husband were eager to put her son back to school. Now, Ranger feels she has to choose between the risk of sending her child back to school or enroll him in the independent study program, which she said is far different from the remote-learning option that was provided last year.
"I was really surprised that they basically threw out all the protocols that they did last year," she said.
Noronha also feels the Palo Alto district needs to be more transparent about the vaccination rates of its faculty. Recently, district Superintendent Don Austin briefly mentioned in a message to families that 97.5% district teachers and substitutes were fully vaccinated.
"One part of me was really happy," Noronha said. "The other part of me was like, 97.5? That's really high. Where's this data coming from? How do they know this?"
Last fall, Hochberg said he pulled his children out of the district to temporarily homeschool them. In less than a week, he and other district parents will have to decide if they want their children to come back to school or keep them at home. While Austin said more than 95% of district families are opting to come back, Hochberg said he hasn't made a final decision yet. Noronha is currently thinking about putting his two kids in a private school where protocols are more rigorous.
"I would love nothing more than my kids to be back in school," Hochberg said. "I just want them to be safe, and I want their friends to be safe."
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