When Omicron hit Palo Alto Unified schools last week, Superintendent Don Austin was, in his own words, “terrified” — not of the virus itself, but that he would have to shut the doors to Palo Alto schools like March of 2020.
Now that terror’s gone. He’s confident, and with good reason: 765 parents across the district’s elementary and secondary schools have volunteered to fill food service, COVID testing, custodial, office assistance and classroom supervision roles left vacant by staff out on quarantine, as part of the district’s bid to keep schools open, dubbed “1 Palo Alto.”
“We’re under 100 away from having as many volunteers as we have teachers,” Austin said. “What that’s done for us is it’s allowed us to be able to tell everybody, ‘It doesn’t matter what happens. We’re staying open.’ And we can say that with confidence right now, when not everybody can.”
Austin said that though not all 765 of 1 Palo Alto’s volunteers are needed immediately, the plan’s always been as much about protecting against future contingencies as about filling immediate needs — in some unforeseen circumstance, the district could cover a sudden overnight spike by the next morning, he said.
Today, the district saw some 70 staff absences across its 18 sites.
“I’m asking Google engineers to empty trash cans for us and they’re just like, ‘Great, let’s do it,’ Austin said. “It’s been amazing so far.”
Austin said that shutting classroom doors and switching to remote learning was never much of an option for Palo Alto Unified.
That’s partially because of the uncertainty of closing doors for two weeks — which became a year and a half last time, he noted — but also because doing so without first meeting strict county standards would be a violation of California education code; the injunctions that allowed schools to offer distance learning last year expired over the summer.
In the absence of an explicit state or local health order, schools can only offer virtual learning through independent study programs, and can’t require that families enroll in that. In fact, it’s illegal for individual teachers to let quarantined students Zoom into the classroom, even if it’s not part of broader school policy.
The only exceptions are if districts shut down using snow or smoke days already built into collective bargaining agreements with the teachers’ union, or if the virus causes a crippling staffing shortage that districts can’t fill (in which case districts must show the county office of education that they’ve exhausted all other options through a long-winded process. Just last week, county health officials, including Dr. Sara Cody, urged schools not to switch to online instruction).
Austin noted that 1 Palo Alto could’ve very well made it harder for other districts to say they’ve exhausted all staffing options when filing to switch to remote instruction.
Also key in the district’s bid to keep doors open through the Omicron-driven surge has been its COVID testing sites.
Yolanda Conaway — the district’s associate superintendent who manages its testing sites — said that because the district started expanding to offer testing to the broader community prior to the Omicron surge, it was prepared for the increased volume when students returned from the break.
“Without even really knowing it, we were planning for the increase, although in our minds what we were doing [was] planning to expand our service to the broader community,” Conaway said. “The shift was about shifting resources, not having to create new avenues. So I think the challenge was not as great as it could’ve been.”
The district has restricted testing at the Cubberley Community Center, which was previously intended to primarily serve the broader community, to district students and staff only. Still,, the district has been able to keep all its testing sites open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day, and even expand Cubberly’s hours to 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays.
Lines are longer than before because of limited staffing, Conaway said, but thus far the district has been able to keep all its testing sites open throughout the day. Neighboring Mountain View–Los Altos Union has had to halve its testing hours due to staff shortages.
Conaway said that the district is even exploring the possibility of a second vaccine booster clinic for students ages 12 and up later in January; the district will release more information on that early next week or sooner.
“I don’t know what direction [Omicron is] going to go in, or whether there will be a new variant,” Conaway said. “But every time there is this shift, we learn more. So each time we do things a little bit better, a little bit smoother. We’re kind of always ready for the next thing.”