PAUSD to make optional in-person return in red tier

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTO BY GIL RUBINSTEIN

Grades 7–12 in the Palo Alto Unified School District will enter an optional in-person return once Santa Clara County falls to the red tier of coronavirus restrictions.

As a continuation of the school board’s Nov. 10 vote to return to school in the spring semester, this latest set of plans created by district staff do not require additional board approval and could go into effect as soon as the first week of March, if the county sits in the red tier — but not earlier.

Superintendent Don Austin said that the district will need until then to further flesh out the plans and work out logistical kinks.

Currently, Santa Clara County sits in the purple tier of coronavirus restrictions, needing to fall substantially in the number of new cases per 100,000 residents metric to fall to the red tier. Schools are allowed to reopen after sitting in the red tier for five consecutive days.

The district’s plans mandate that all teachers return to campus, but give students ability to opt in or out. Students will be split into two alphabetical groups and attend a full schedule of classes two days a week, with Mondays remaining remote for secondary schools across the district. 

While the exact setup is not immediately clear, the plans call for both students on campus and at home to attend the same Zoom class, the only difference being that students in the classroom are physically present with the teacher leading the class, and would presumably benefit from the increased social interaction of interacting with peers during breaks. 

The maximum number of students in one classroom will be as many as can fit while maintaining the required 6-foot distance. 

Austin emphasized that, in contrast to the reopening plan passed in November, student schedules will not be affected, nor will families be forced to commit to in-person attendance, and students who opt in to the return will still have the choice to attend classes remotely day by day.

Many details remain unclear, including how students would rotate through different classes, as the plan will not use strict cohorts. Further plans, including COVID testing for students, will be discussed at the board’s next meeting on Feb. 23.

The district’s elementary schoolers are currently engaged in a hybrid return, even set to begin a full-return pilot with 15 cohorts in February, and an optional hybrid return for sixth graders on March 1. 

Several teachers, however, expressed concerns about the safety of possibly returning next month during public comment. 

“To put anyone into a crowded, enclosed environment for six to eight hours per day at this point in time would be the height of irresponsibility,” said Paul Gralen, an art teacher at Greene Middle School.

Parents, however — many of whom attended a protest calling for an in-person return yesterday — expressed strong support for the plan, citing student mental health as a priority. Many parents stressed that other districts have already reopened and fully vaccinating teachers should not be a prerequisite to an in-person return.  

Meanwhile, student board representatives Gunn senior Thomas Li and Paly senior Medha Atla, expressed dismay at the plan going into effect with little input from students, reporting that they were only informed of the plan hours prior to the meeting. 

“My hope is that there will be a vote,” Li said. “[The current plan] seems drastically different from the plan that was presented in November, and if we voted to reopen schools in November based off of that iteration of the plan, then that decision was based in part on the details of that plan.” 

Austin emphasized that the new plan is simply a reworking of the board’s November decision to reopen and that requiring a further vote would only delay planning and reopening.

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