Gunn, PALY to return in person along with PAUSD middle schools in January

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Palo Alto middle and high schools will reopen next semester under a hybrid model, following the Palo Alto Unified School District Board’s unanimous vote last night to approve the plan; that plan is set to be tweaked before reopening day, with further input from teachers and instructional leads.

The proposal, however, received biting criticism from dozens of PAUSD students, parents and teachers in particular. Both student Board representatives voted against the reopening.

THE MODEL

Under the return model, high schoolers will have the option to attend in-person instruction for their English and social studies classes and complete all other courses remotely. Middle schoolers who opt into the in-person return will attend English, social studies and science courses in the morning, and complete the rest of their classes remotely in the afternoon; however, most of last night’s conversation centered around the high school return.

The high school hybrid return schedule (via PAUSD)

Depending on a number of factors, high school cohorts will range from 30 to 60 students, with the group being split in two; one group will attend social studies while the other attends English, with a swap occurring at the period break. 

The same teachers will instruct both groups, which is why the two groups are considered to be one cohort.

English and social studies were chosen specifically to make the cohorts possible, as those courses are more uniform; high school students often don’t take four years of STEM courses, and even then, those courses are highly tracked which would make scheduling the return model near impossible to pull off.

POTENTIAL DRAWBACKS

However, in order to be enrolled in the correct courses, students may find themselves with a new teacher and set of classmates; not all students will opt into the hybrid model, meaning administrators will have to shift pupils and instructors in order to accommodate differing schedules and preferences.

The staff proposal did not specify how large class sizes of remote English and social studies classes will be, although Associate Superintendent Sharon Ofek said that that number should sit at below 40 — whatever the number, it would still be an increase from typical class sizes.

Furthermore, many specifics — such as what will happen to students enrolled in multiple social studies courses and how likely it is that students will have to switch teachers — remained largely unclear, with Ofek and Superintendent Don Austin emphasizing that many of those decisions will be up to site administration.

CRITICISM

In reaction to many of the perceived drawbacks, community members — teachers in particular — lodged harsh critiques of the reopening plan during public comment, prior to the vote.

“For the vast majority of students that I’ve talked to, full distance learning is working,” Gunn English teacher Justin Brown said. “And I can tell you from personal experience that it’s only getting better each day.”

Brown argued that given strict social distancing and safety precautions, the quality of any in-person instruction will be “flat out inferior” to distance learning, particularly in classes as discussion-based as English.

“I know that there are certain students for whom returning in person may be necessary, so let’s figure out a way to bring them back,” Brown added. “But why disrupt something that is perfectly stable in such unstable times?”

Many students, for their part, expressed concerns about having to build relationships with new teachers — juniors and seniors in particular indicated worry about what that could mean for letters of recommendation for college applications.

“By opening, you’re voluntarily increasing the community spread of COVID,” Gunn student Athena Chen said. “As someone who lives with my grandpa, I’ve been extremely cautious about what I do and where I go. As a school board, you should be responsible for the safety of your staff and teachers and the safety of the students and families.”

Other community members expressed similar sentiments, further arguing that the downsides of a hybrid return — primarily exposure risks, shuffled classes and undeveloped relationships with teachers — far outweigh the benefits. 

Despite an overwhelming majority of critical statements made during public comment, a handful of community members did express support for the reopening.

“How is [distance learning] working well if classes are being let out early, screen time has quadrupled and kids are looking at their phones rather than their teacher?” community member Anais Laborde-Liu asked. 

Laborde-Liu cited recent CDC data that she claimed showed that almost one in five teens have seriously considered commiting suicide as a result of the shelter-in-place.

“Kids and teens are not super spreaders,” she said. “Teachers are considered essential workers; therefore they should be back in school, full time. If you can go to Safeway, Costco and dining, you can go back to school.”

“Our plan is imperfect — COVID took any shot at perfection away from us,” Austin said. “We aren’t talking about making gains and doing some amazing things because COVID erased that.”

Speaking prior to the presentation of the plan, Austin sought to release a unifying message.

“People aren’t the enemy,” Austin said. “It’s strained everyone, it’s taken lives and in many ways, it’s brought out the worst in many of us. COVID is the enemy — not the unions not the school board, not your principal, not your superintendent, not your teachers, or our parents.”

The window for families to choose between the fully remote and hybrid options opens today and closes a week from now. The default option if families fail to complete the form will be the remote option.

District administrators will be holding a reopening town hall at 3:15 p.m. on Friday, November 13.

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