School district's call for help leads hundreds to volunteer during omicron wave | January 14, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - January 14, 2022

School district's call for help leads hundreds to volunteer during omicron wave

Over 500 parents sign up in less than a day

by Zoe Morgan

Increasing absences among local educators during this latest COVID-19 surge have led the Palo Alto Unified School District to ask parents to step up and volunteer on campuses in an effort to keep schools open.

The school district launched the "1 Palo Alto" campaign on Sunday night, Jan. 9, and by mid-day on Monday, more than 500 parents had already signed up, Superintendent Don Austin said. By Wednesday, sign-ups had surpassed 750.

"This number, it just really speaks to who our parents are and what they see in our schools," Austin told the Weekly on Monday.

The district has launched a webpage — — where parents can learn about the campaign and fill out a form to participate. Available roles include helping out in school offices, supervising students during lunch and recess, aiding with school meal distribution and assisting at COVID-19 testing clinics.

On Wednesday afternoon, Herbert Hoover Elementary School PTA President Ira Pamnani organized a small group of parents, who sanitized the school after kids left for the day. Five volunteers, including Pamnani, disinfected desks, chairs, doorknobs and other areas kids and school staff frequently touch.

According to Pamnani, Hoover already had a group of roughly 15 to 20 parent volunteers helping out on campus this school year, but with 1 Palo Alto, nearly 40 more signed up.

"We'll just take it day by day and figure out how many volunteers we need for each task — but now we have a list of people to work with," Pamnani said.

In addition to jobs like disinfecting surfaces, parents also could end up helping out in classrooms. Though a certificated teacher is required to oversee students, individual classes at middle and high schools could hypothetically get combined, so that one teacher supervises a larger group, with support from parent volunteers, Austin said.

He stressed that would only be done if necessary and that the secondary schools have large spaces that could accommodate bigger groups of students.

The district is averaging around 70 teacher absences per day, compared to a normal daily rate of around 50, Austin said. The challenges have been compounded by difficulties in recruiting substitute teachers, shortages that have hit districts nationwide.

When there aren't enough traditional substitute teachers to fill all the spots on a given day, the district has been able to get by thus far with a combination of teachers filling in during their preparation periods and administrators and other staff who have a teaching credential covering classes.

On Monday, Jan. 10, there were 19 unfilled substitute teaching spots in Palo Alto, which Austin said the district was ultimately able to fill. If those numbers go up, the district could combine classes and turn to parent volunteers to provide added support.

Ultimately, though, many of the roles that parents are likely to be asked to fill are in behind-the-scenes positions.

"We need help in areas many people don't even know exist," Austin said in a video message to parents. "It won't be glamorous — many of the essential jobs that occur every day to support your kids aren't glamorous."

All volunteers need to be vaccinated, and high school students can earn service hours by volunteering in roles that are appropriate and don't conflict with their class schedule, according to the district's website.

"With every volunteer, it's just adding confidence to our ability to stay open," Austin said. "If we don't need to use everybody through this surge, that's fine, but we're not going to be the district that's not prepared."

Palo Alto Unified has seen a big spike in COVID-19 cases, similar to those experienced by many school districts. In a Friday, Jan. 7, email to families, the district reported 382 COVID-19 cases among students and staff, 144 of which had been on campuses. In the fall semester, before the omicron variant hit, the district was reporting weekly case counts in the single digits.

Both high schools saw 20 or more cases last week; JL Stanford Middle and Duveneck and Escondido elementary schools saw 10 or more cases, according to the district's COVID-19 dashboard.

As parents have seen cases skyrocket and staffing shortages persist, Pamnani said that many want to do whatever they can to ensure their children are able to remain in the classroom, rather than return to online schooling.

"Schools are the heartbeat of Palo Alto," Pamnani said. "People move here just for the schools, and we will do whatever we can to keep them open."

Austin had warned earlier this month that classrooms could be forced online due to staffing shortages. That's no longer on the table, Austin said.

"I want to be clear: Unless we're compelled by an outside agency with authority, PAUSD will remain open," Austin told parents in the video. "We will not close."

In an interview, Austin said that recent guidance from the state and Santa Clara County has made clear that moving classes online isn't currently permitted because the state law that allowed for virtual learning has expired.

"As of June 30, 2021, school districts may no longer offer remote or virtual learning in lieu of in-person instruction. Students learn best when they are amongst their peers and have access to school resources," the Santa Clara County Office of Education and Santa Clara County Public Health Department said in a joint Jan. 7 press release.

In a Jan. 9 email to school officials that Austin shared with the Weekly, county Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan made clear that districts "do not have the explicit legal authority to shift to virtual learning."

If schools can't operate because of staffing shortages, they can seek a waiver from the state, but have to offer independent study and demonstrate they've exhausted all other options, Dewan said. If a district does close, it could use built-in smoke or snow days, while maintaining the required 180-day school year.

Email Staff Writer Zoe Morgan at [email protected]


Posted by Dawn Asken
a resident of Professorville
on Jan 11, 2022 at 12:46 pm

Dawn Asken is a registered user.

The idea of parents helping in the schools is not a new idea. The best thing would be for all of these volunteers to get their emergency teaching credentials and spend some time covering classes.

Posted by Novelera
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 11, 2022 at 4:08 pm

Novelera is a registered user.

So much bad news everywhere with the Omicron variant spreading everywhere. It was heartening to read about these parents helping keep our schools open.

Posted by James Thurber
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 11, 2022 at 4:16 pm

James Thurber is a registered user.

As a retired public school teacher I've thoroughly enjoyed substitute teaching in Palo Alto. The district support of teachers and students is extraordinary and most appreciated.

Lorie Prior, the manager of substitutes, has done a superlative job in all regards. In today's Covid world I cannot imagine a tougher job, yet she's stuck with it. Thank you, Lorie, for a job VERY well done.

As far as student behavior, I've taught from Kindergarten through eleventh grade and, without exception, every student wears a mask - properly - and more and more students are wearing the N-95 series.

Palo Alto provided testing kits to their students along with on-site testing at all their schools. I'm confident that the steps Palo Alto Unified has taken will ensure that as few people as possible end up missing due to illness.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 11, 2022 at 5:06 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

How is this any different from what was a normal expectation of parents in the past. When we had kids in Palo Alto schools we were almost expected to do something to volunteer to aid in our kids' education. Lunchtime supervision (rainy days), stuffing Friday packets, helping with spelling, reading, math facts, helping in libraries, helping with drop off/pick up, lice checking, helping with assemblies, career sessions, college sessions, and a host of other volunteer opportunities existed in all the schools we were connected with.

Any family that didn't participate seemed to be made to feel as if they were free wheeling.

Is this just going back to what was normal?

Posted by Just Another Parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 11, 2022 at 5:27 pm

Just Another Parent is a registered user.

This is nothing new, why tug the heart strings? This is too much of a publicity play.

Posted by ReallyLiveHere
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 12, 2022 at 7:11 am

ReallyLiveHere is a registered user.

This is actually a huge difference. For much of the pandemic, it has been difficult for parents to volunteer, as rules barring parents from schools kept them away. We're also seeing parents used to replace staff on a large scale, rather than to supplement them.

Posted by MiddleAged
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 12, 2022 at 10:18 pm

MiddleAged is a registered user.

I agree with Just Another Parent. Parents have always been asked to help out. The volunteer requests I've seen from 2 schools don't seem to be Covid-related tbh. Substitute teaching is less of a problem now that current teachers are getting paid $$$!!! (temporarily due to Covid, of course) to step in for a colleague during their prep periods. Teachers all over the world deserve a HUGE raise. They should be getting paid "normally non-Covid" what they're getting paid hourly to step in for absent colleagues.

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