Beyond satisfying local sweet tooths, Los Altos’ Sweet Shop is a community staple

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL AND SIDDHANT KANWAR, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Harry Logan is such a regular at the Sweet Shop on Los Altos Ave. that the register has a special key just to ring up his order: a ham and scrambled egg sandwich with a coffee au lait.

The Sweet Shop — which likely has many patrons with a sweeter tooth than Logan’s — strives to have “something for everyone,” although there are some clear favorites. The staff at the shop have largely concluded that the Sour Rainbow Belts and Sour Patch Kids are the most appealing to kids, while adults seem to have a more refined taste, preferring dark chocolate. 

Apart from candy, the Sweet Shop also sells savory items, such as the “Croissantwich” (a croissant with eggs and melted cheese), or the “Egg White Skinny” (a croissant with egg whites, goat cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto and spinach).

Most of the recipes for the savory meals are made by Sandra Colunga, the store’s manager, and taste-tested by employees. Colunga, apparently, tries to come up with healthier food options to counterbalance the sweetness. 

Harry Logan sits on the Sweet Shop patio. (Carly Heltzel)

As Logan — a Los Altos resident of 51 years, who has frequented the shop almost every day for the past 11 years — could tell you, the property has changed hands many times through the years (he nostalgically recounted the story of when his son tried to pay for a Tootsie Roll at Foodland with a $100 bill, only to later be busted for stealing it from his mom’s purse). 

But despite the Sweet Shop’s relatively recent history, Logan said that it’s definitively the best shop that has been there, and by far the one he has visited most frequently.

Sitting in the quaint parlor for a few hours every morning and striking up conversations with anyone who is willing to hear his war stories or talk about their own hopes and dreams, the loyal customer perfectly embodies the heartwarming atmosphere of this community-oriented and historical local business.

NEIGHBORHOOD-CENTERED

Twelve years ago, Stacy Savides Sullivan and her family bought the unusual property — which sits in the middle of a residential area — after it had been on the market for four years, and renovated it before opening the doors in August of 2009. With the hope that it would once again become an active part of the community, the Sweet Shop was born.

“[Sullivan] saw the opportunity and said ‘What if we buy this property, fix it up, and bring it back to give something back to the community,’” Colunga said. “And part of that was because when she was in high school, when there would be a special occasion, she and her friends would ride their bikes here and get one piece of candy. So there was some history for her personally as well.”

Since its beginning, the Sweet Shop has consistently retained its high school employees for around three to four years, some even staying through their years at community college. One such worker, Dania Zavala, an employee of three years, said that she has stuck around because “the hours are great and the people are great.” 

The Sweet Shop as viewed from Los Altos Ave. (Emily McNally)

“[The customers] are all regulars for the most part, so we know them by name, and they’re just really nice and they take the time to actually learn our names,” Zavala said. “Because of that, it’s just like a neighborhood.”

The friendly neighborhood aspect and close proximity to school make the Sweet Shop a local hotspot for elementary and middle schoolers, with mayhem ensuing when minimum days roll around. 

“It’s fun — super fun — but it’s non-stop for a couple of hours,” Colunga said. “[On] minimum days often kids can get sandwiches and candy and the whole thing. It’s just full of kids and bicycles and chaos.”

Normally, even when she stations someone at the door to mediate the number of people in the shop, it quickly becomes “jam-packed” with candy flying everywhere, Colunga said. 

PHILANTHROPY

With its largest demographic of customers being local students, the Sweet Shop decided to give back to the community by donating 5% of its yearly proceeds to local schools.

“We’re trying to support schools, basically where the customers are coming from,” Colunga said. “So Egan, Santa Rita, Gunn, Los Altos High School and Mountain View High School.”

Every year, Sullivan reaches out to the schools to find out what they might specifically need, and the Sweet Shop donates funds to fulfill that need.

One year, as the Egan photography teacher had been taking her students on field trips to the Sweet Shop to take artsy photos of the candy, Sullivan and Colunga decided to donate money to buy the kids better equipment.

“It’s a good thing for us and it’s fun for them, and [the teacher’s] been doing this for years,” Colunga said, describing the field trips. “So we gave them some funds because they are in need of better equipment for photography in general.” 

As a family-friendly establishment, the Sweet Shop is also home to a little library, a mailbox-type neighborhood book swap which Colunga bought a few years ago and continues to maintain. She said she loves seeing grandparents take out picture books to read to their grandkids on the Sweet Shop patio, or elementary schoolers swapping out their old novels for new ones.

“It’s the most self-maintained thing I’ve ever had because you don’t really do anything,” Colunga said. “Once in a while we clean the cobwebs and straighten the books, but you rely on the community; they come and bring you books.”

COVID-19 IMPACT

As it shut down during the first lockdown in March, the Sweet Shop management has had to change operation to follow county safety standards, particularly tricky given the nature of the candy shop.

Being unable to use the inside of the store led to the end of people being able to pick and choose what they wanted from different jars, a highlight for many customers but there have been some benefits.

“Probably one of the best things that came from COVID was the amount of money we’re saving on candy because when we have the kids and it’s a crazy Friday afternoon, candy is flying on the floor because everyone’s so excited,” Colunga said. “Now, there is no wastage.”

Instead, the Sweet Shop now offers pre-bagged candy packets, which Colunga says they’ll likely stick to for the foreseeable future. 

Even without its free-flying candy, the Sweet Shop has remained a unique and charming locale embedded in the community it serves throughout the pandemic.

And as more and more people come across this endearing establishment, the Sweet Shop’s loyal clientele continues to grow.

“You don’t have to live right down the street, you know we have people from across town, and other towns because they’ve discovered it,” Colunga said. “It’s become their special little spot.”

Monday, May 10: A previous version of this article had incorrectly stated the name and ingredients of the “Egg White Skinny,” and misspelled Dania Zavala’s name. The errors have been corrected.

Mountain View to pilot universal basic income program with surplus COVID-19 relief funds

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The City of Mountain View is set to pilot a universal basic income program using $1 million of excess federal COVID-19 relief funds as part of a program proposed by Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga at the council’s April 27 meeting.

“We’ve been fortunate we haven’t faced the deficit that a lot of other cities have,” Abe-Koga said in an interview. “I thought this would be an opportunity to try and be innovative, and try something different.”

Through the American Rescue Plan — a $1.9 trillion stimulus act signed by President Biden in March — Mountain View is receiving $15 million over the next two years which leaves the city with $3 million in surplus with current budgetary projections. 

City staff previously asked the council to come up with suggestions for using these funds, Abe-Koga said, as the federal aid must be used by 2024.

Despite no plans being concrete, Abe-Koga said that a rough model of the program could be providing $500 per month to a set number of low-income individuals, likely chosen through a lottery system, for one to two years starting as early as this fall. The scale and details of the program are expected to develop in the next two months.

“I’ve always felt that the best way to help folks is to help them help themselves,” Abe-Koga said. “One of the concepts of UBI is to empower the individual to make choices to help them better their lives, so this idea of direct assistance was very appealing to me.”

The city council’s third quarter budget, which includes the UBI funding, will not be approved until its June 8 meeting; in the meantime, Abe-Koga said the council directed city staff to research the best approach to implement the program.

As the UBI discussion diverged from the April 27 meeting’s agenda and pre-distributed budget packet, the proposal has gone largely unnoticed so far, but Abe-Koga said the response from those who are aware of it –– including her fellow councilmembers –– has been only positive.

“Individuals who are aware of it, folks have been very positive,” Abe-Koga. “I haven’t actually heard any negative yet about it. I’m sure there will be.”

Last year, as mayor, Abe-Koga approved Mountain View’s COVID-19 rent relief program that provided direct financial assistance to low-income residents, but the money had a prescribed purpose rather than allowing recipients to use their discretion as UBI would; she said this gives her hope of community support for the UBI pilot as well.

A handful of nearby cities have implemented similar pilot programs including Oakland, Stockton, San Francisco and South San Francisco –– with all except the last being considerably larger than Mountain View. Abe-Koga said the idea of piloting a UBI program didn’t seem feasible until she heard about the recent program in South San Francisco.

And while figures as early as Martin Luther King Jr. have argued for guaranteed income as a way to uplift low-income individuals, Abe Koga said that she first seriously considered UBI while following Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign.

For technical assistance and help tracking the data of the pilot program to measure its success, the city has reached out to the national movement called Mayors for Guaranteed Income and Silicon Valley Community Foundation, respectively, anticipating that their prior experience will be of great help in the success of the program.

Noting the rarity of governments embracing novelty and saying that they tend to “wait for the stars to align,” Abe-Koga said she hopes there will be community interest and support to keep UBI programs going.

“In terms of [UBI] becoming permanent, yeah, hopefully,” Abe Koga said. “We need to see the results, but hopefully if there [are] positive results –– it sounds like and it looks like from these other cities that have done pilots that there are –– then we could be part of advocating for something nationwide.”

Mountain View expands local gun control

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Mountain View City Council last night unanimously approved a city ordinance prohibiting possession of any firearm on all city property, the council’s latest step toward increasing local gun control. 

The city’s previous gun laws banned possession of a firearm in city parks, in certain public buildings and meetings; loaded firearms in public; and carrying an exposed and unloaded handgun in public. 

This new ordinance will extend gun control across the board, which the council hopes will reduce the fear of gun violence or accidental endangerment among the public and city employees on city property.

To enforce the ordinance, police officers who observe violations will be permitted to use their discretion to either cite or arrest the individual, although they will not actively search for weapons on city property. Violations will be prosecuted as misdemeanors. 

Among many others during public comment during the April 13 council meeting when the ordinance was first presented, resident Tim MacKenzie commended the city for their efforts

“This is a way of taking action,” MacKenzie said. “And it is very good and inspiring to see action being taken.”

This action first started in September 2019, when city staff developed a list of potential gun control measures that the city council could consider adopting, including prohibiting firearms sales as a home occupation, implementing locational restrictions on firearms dealers, requiring safe storage of firearms and prohibiting possession of firearms on city property. 

The council, as seen last night, ultimately chose to move forward with the last option.

The safe storage requirements for firearms received praise during council discussion and public comment alike at the April 13 meeting, making it a potential next step forward for continued expansion of gun laws.

Public commenter Rachel Michelson described the safe storage laws in the cities of Saratoga and Sunnyvale as models to follow in the coming years, calling it the “next brave step” toward protecting people from firearm fatalities and injuries.

Many others voiced their support in an overwhelmingly positive wave of feedback.

“While many city ordinances can be quite dry, I found myself actually being moved by several parts of this one,” resident Don Veith said, going on to acknowledge several words that stood out to him during the presentation. “Unacceptable is the right word because we just have to stop accepting [gun violence]. I thank Mountain View for recognizing that this is an obligation.”

Mountain View Council solidifies Public Safety Advisory Board appointments

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Mountain View City Council tonight appointed seven individuals to the newly formed Public Safety Advisory Board, a group of Mountain View residents who will advise the city council on public safety matters — specifically the police department.

The council appointed residents Cleave Frink, Derek Langton, Joan Brodovsky and Kavita Aiyar to four-year full terms. Eva Tang, Jeannette Wang and Kalwant Sandhu were appointed to two-year half terms.

Last year, the city council created the Ad-Hoc Subcommittee on Race, Equity and Inclusion dedicated to guiding the city’s efforts toward achieving its vision of racial justice in June of 2020 — “ad-hoc” meaning the committee only stood for a limited term, unlike a standing subcommittee which continues indefinitely.

The advisory board serves as a more permanent solution to police reform, although it serves in a purely advisory capacity; the city council may choose to toss any of its recommendations.

In the coming months, the advisory board — which serves as a liaison between the community and police department — will primarily focus on community outreach and serve as a forum for public discussion before presenting any recommendations to the city council. 

“I’m here as a mediator to take the raw emotion and anger from the community which you have heard over and over in public comment,” Tang, one of the appointed individuals said in her council interview in March. “And take that and do the dirty work of digging in and actually turning it into something tangible for the community.”

Hundreds gather for youth-led Mountain View AAPI rally

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTOS BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Hundreds of protesters marched through downtown Mountain View today in support of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community in a local show of solidarity amidst rising anti-Asian hate crimes nationwide.

The effort was largely organized by three youth chairs: Castilleja School senior Amanda Khu, Mountain View High School senior Daisy Kemp and Lynbrook High School sophomore Jason Shan.

“Our focus is to spread cultural awareness of the presence and long-standing racism against AAPI people in this area and also to combat, to spread activism and to protest the recent events that have been happening,” Kemp said in an interview prior to the rally. “Really trying to get the point across that AAPI racism has been here since Mountain View was formed.”

Less than a hundred years ago, in the very spot where protesters gathered today to rally against Asian American hate, Japanese Americans were processed at what is now the Mountain View Caltrain station and shipped off to internment camps in an effort to forcibly remove them from the Bay Area during WWII. 

In 1862, supporters of the Anti-Coolie Act, which aimed to “protect” white people from job competition with Chinese immigrants by becoming the first immigration legislation in the U.S. to target a specific ethnic group, marched down the same streets as the protesters did today.

During the march through downtown Mountain View, one of the protesters, Ping L., who requested her last name not be used, shouted out chants such as “Stop Asian hate, stop all hate” and “no more violence, no more silence” as she and her family marched down Castro street in the stream of protesters. The crowd around her echoed her cheers and outdoor diners clapped and whistled as the protesters marched by. 

“Initially we were just here to join the rally, but it was too quiet,” she said. “We need to let people know what we stand for, so I wanted to make our voices heard.”

As she caught her breath from shouting slogans, she added that to her, the rally was a place to let out all of the anger and frustration that many Asians feel, unite as one community and be a role model to her son.

“I have my boy standing behind me, I have to set the example of fighting justice and fairness,” Ping said. “I feel like it is ridiculous that this is happening in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, that we have to request our basic right to safety.”

Like many other speakers, she shared the fear that she or someone she knows could be the next victim of AAPI violence. In fact, all of the youngest speakers, who were eight to 10 year olds, expressed their constant fear of going outside.

“I am scared and sad about the cycle of hatred,” 10-year-old Ray H. said. “No one wants to be the next victim.”

“I was always told I was a happy sunshine kid, but not anymore,” 8-year-old Michael P. said. “Children should not be afraid to go outside.”

The rally had a large emphasis on youth leadership and participation, with both Ray and Michael among several students from ages eight to 18 standing in front of the crowd and sharing their perspectives.

The rally began at 2:30 p.m. when protesters gathered at the Mountain View Transit Center to make signs before beginning the march to the city hall at 3 p.m. Many signs read “#StopAAPIHate,” “Racism is a virus, unity is the cure,” “I am home” and “Not your model minority.” 

Once protesters arrived at city hall and were greeted by Taiko drummers, a host of elected officials including Mountain View Mayor Ellen Kamei, Police Chief Chris Hsuing, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, state senators and assembly members along with many members of several local city councils and school boards gave short speeches in support of the AAPI community.

Despite its impressive lineup, Kemp said that the planning process only began about a week prior to holding the rally and that the committee pulled it off by immersing themselves in the planning. 

Working with Kamei, among many others, the youth chairs signed up all of the speakers, the musical performance from San Jose’s youth singing group Able to Shine and a few informational tables that were aimed at increasing the interactivity of the rally.

Kamei — whose father was born in the Heart Mountain Japanese internment camp and whose mother is Chinese-Puerto Rican — said that as someone who always had to check the “other” box when it came to identifying her race, to her, today’s rally was about coming together, sharing experiences, and showing solidarity as a community.

“There isn’t just one Asian American experience,” Kamei said in an interview prior to the rally. “So I think today will really be key in trying to understand the wide ranging perspectives that people have on this topic and how it affects them and I hope people can hear about how we can all be better allies for each other.”

As the youngest of the youth chairs and someone who has not experienced overt acts of racism, Shan said that he was at first unsure what he could contribute to the rally, but soon realized that not everyone in the crowd would have had these experiences either. 

“We are here because our community was attacked,” Shan said. “You as youth have a voice and there are people who will stand behind you.”

MV council moves one step closer to formation of Public Safety Advisory Board

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Mountain View City Council recommended the appointment of seven civilian community members to the Public Safety Advisory Board during its March 16 study session, the latest development in the city’s effort to streamline police reform. The recommended appointees will be confirmed in a final vote during the council’s April 13 meeting. 

The council’s recommendations include Mountain View residents Cleave Frink, Derek Langton, Joan Brodovsky and Kavita Aiyar for four-year full terms. Eva Tang, Jeannette Wang and Kalwant Sandhu were recommended two-year half terms.

Before voting, council members each gave a brief overview of their personal criteria for candidates, all of which were largely based on the criteria outlined in the study session’s memo. 

“What I was looking for was a broad representation of different neighborhoods, ethnic groups and stakeholders,” Vice Mayor Lucas Ramirez said. “It’s unfortunate that we don’t have Latinx candidates, but I’m hoping in the future when people see the good work they are able to do there will be more interest.”

Similarly expressing her concerns about a lack of Latino representation, full-term appointee Joan Brodovsky said that her relationships with individuals in Mountain View’s Latino community could help the advisory board gather this missing perspective in the future. 

Still, the applicant pool featured a diverse group of candidates as Ramirez had hoped, with backgrounds ranging from an ex–police officer and a high schooler to a chemist and a neighborhood association leader.

During the study session, Mayor Ellen Kamei facilitated the interviews by asking each candidate what makes them unique, which of the recent policing discussions they have attended, what they think the role of the advisory board is and how they think it will make an impact on the relationship between the police department and community members.

The council listened to the responses and after hearing from all 13 applicants, each council member had seven votes to give to candidates.

As one of the two candidates who received a vote from every council member, Cleave Frink discussed how his unique perspective comes from both being a Black man and watching his father run an earlier version of a civilian advisory board in the 1970s. 

“It’s important to make sure that the body doesn’t become a complaint board,” Frink said. “It has to be a deliberative body to figure out how to help the police department and the city serve its community in the way that they want to be served.”

The other of the two unanimous appointments, Kavita Aiyar, said she has already been working on reform with the police chief, including piloting discussions with the public and focus groups. During her interview with the council, Aiyar described the board as a “bridge” between community concerns and the police department.

Among these concerns is the police response to mental health–related issues, with which Eva Tang described her first-hand experiences. Before her father’s passing in January due to COVID-19, he was afflicted with mental illness and Tang said she saw the often-negative impact of police presence during his crises.

“He had a lot of crises before he was diagnosed that were handled by police, and as his daughter, it was a very scary and vulnerable time,” she said. “I wonder how that could’ve been handled better.”

Tang said she is grounded in equity as a teacher in East Palo Alto who has watched the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, and decided to see through her commitment to police reform by applying for the advisory board after advocating for its formation in the first place.

“I’m here as a mediator to take the raw emotion and anger from the community which you have heard over and over in public comment,” Tang said. “And take that and do the dirty work of digging in and actually turning it into something tangible for the community.”

Echoing this sentiment, Kamei said she hopes people feel included in directing discussions made possible by the PSAB’s future outreach.

“I find it a point of hope,” Kamei said. “This is an opportunity for us to build that community trust.”

Graduation in the pandemic: three potential plans from the MVLA district

STORY BY CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

The iconic graduation song “Pomp and Circumstance” blares through the speakers as the senior class files onto the campus bleachers together, preparing to walk across the stage in front of the sea of their families’ faces. 

Oh wait no, never mind. 

Los Altos High School Assistant Principal Suzanne Woolfolk and Mountain View High School Assistant Principal Jon Robell last night detailed the logistical components of potential graduation plans — modified, given the raging global pandemic — also sharing the results from a survey of over 700 seniors district-wide and comments from various senior class meetings at both schools.

Results show that the priorities of the senior class are safely graduating together with their classmates; allowing spectators to view the ceremony; being able to uphold tradition and graduate on campus; and being able to symbolically walk across a stage.

Although there were three different options for an in-person graduation presented at tonight’s Mountain View–Los Altos School Board meeting, none of them check all of those boxes. 

Here is a breakdown of the options the district is considering:

PLAN A: SENIORS IN ONE CEREMONY WITH REMOTE SPECTATORS

In the first plan discussed, the entire senior class would graduate on campus in the same ceremony, with the slight possibility that they would be able to walk across the stage. But in order to space out students enough to comply with physical distancing rules, no spectators would be invited to watch in-person.

Instead, the district would hire a videographer to follow along the rows of students in spaced out chairs on the turf field, capturing each graduate standing up to be recognized as their names are called. 

The video would be broadcast live for families and spectators to watch either remotely or for seniors’ support “pods” to watch on a large movie screen as they are spaced out on the adjacent field; the logistical feasibility of having families on the field next to the one where graduates is still being examined by the district.

For students who wish to opt out of the in-person ceremony, their name and photo would be edited into the video recording.

Despite the student survey results indicating that most students care more about graduating with the whole class present than accommodating spectators, a few parents of seniors spoke out against this option during public comment of last night’s board meeting, due to a lack of parent input being considered.

“There seems to be a lack of ability for parents to weigh in on the graduation,” MVLA parent David Clark Hinz said. “As someone who had a graduate last year, I’m thinking about how the graduation is going to come off, as the family is a very important part of the graduation.” 

“As parents, I think it’s meaningful for us to be there,” MVLA parent Shiera Ariel added.

Woolfolk said she hopes to send out a widespread survey to parents as well as potentially hold a Zoom call or webinar to receive and discuss feedback from parents in the next month or so.

PLAN B: TWO MINI CEREMONIES WITH IN-PERSON SPECTATORS

In the second option presented, about half of the senior class — around 250–275 students — would graduate at a time, with two to three ceremonies being held on campus throughout the day; the larger Los Altos bleachers could accommodate enough students per ceremony to only hold two, whereas Mountain View would likely have to hold three.

Every senior would be given the same number of graduation tickets, likely four, and those spectators would sit in designated pods on the turf field to watch students stand up in the bleachers when their name is called. 

Seniors would be seated on the home-side bleachers as spaced out as they can be, which Woolfolk said is only 4 feet apart. Although there are no indications that federal, state or county guidelines will loosen to only require 4-foot physical distancing by June 4, Woolfolk said that this plan was made with that assumption.

This model also includes broadcasting a live stream of the graduation ceremony for those who are unable to safely attend.

Concerns surrounding this plan, as expressed by seniors in the survey, include losing the authenticity of traditions and speeches by having to repeat everything, fears around the rushed setup and changes between ceremonies — such as potential issues of sanitization — and not being together as a whole class.

“I selected to have graduation with as many seniors as possible and no audience … I just want to be with my friends, but it would be nice to have my family there too,” an anonymous senior wrote in the survey.

PLAN C: SINGLE CEREMONY WITH SPECTATORS, OFF-SITE

The last option, which was brought up as a possibility during the recent discussions with seniors, was to hold an off-campus ceremony at an outdoor venue large enough to have seniors and spectators spaced out safely. 

Woolfolk said they currently have a non-binding hold on the Earthquake’s Stadium, the same location as last year’s drive-in graduation ceremony video, but this time it would reserve the whole field and stands, allowing the schools the space they need to bring everyone together by spreading them apart.

She added that the owners offered to lend out the stadium itself for free, meaning the district would only have to pay for the necessary staff to operate the venue — she described it as a “very generous” deal. 

Other venues mentioned include Levi’s Stadium, which would cost at least twice as much as Earthquake’s, and Shoreline Amphitheatre, which may not have enough room and is also considerably more expensive.

The district’s non-binding hold on the Earthquake’s Stadium for June 4 will come up in two weeks, so decisions regarding Plan C must be made quickly. 

But this seeming compromise of having all graduates and spectators together may have its own pitfalls.

“There’s a lot of sentiment of ‘we love having graduation on campus,’ there’s a lot of love for Plans A and B because of that campus aspect,” Woolfolk said.

She added that one of the major concerns is whether or not being off-site would take away from the seniors’ graduation experience, a question likely to be asked in another future survey.

FEEDBACK AND NEXT STEPS

The survey of Mountain View High School students found that 75% of the 362 students who responded were in favor of a ceremony held at an off-site space large enough to hold all graduates and spectators; Los Altos High School conducted a similar survey but did not ask about off-campus options.

Slightly lower, 70% of those seniors said they were in favor of a distanced ceremony on the campus field without specifying whether or not spectators were present, and, significantly lower, only 26% were in favor of conducting three mini-ceremonies throughout the day to ensure safety. 

In the Los Altos survey of 411 seniors, 54.5% of students said that having as many seniors graduate together as possible with virtual spectators was more important to them than having a small number of family and friends and dividing it up into mini-ceremonies. 

Graduation plans will be finalized in the next month or so, with opportunities for more senior, parent and community input in the meantime; Robell said the next senior cabinet meeting in which this will be discussed is on April 7.

“We thank you for using student input so heavily,” senior and Mountain View School Board Representative Erin Coyne said.

While trying to preserve as much of the tradition and community as possible, with coronavirus restrictions still in place and an uncertain future, Woolfolk and Robell remained cautiously optimistic for lifted restrictions in June.

The limits of COVID-19 safety and inability to make everyone happy puts extra pressure on their decision, but looking forward, Woolfolk, Robell, and the team of people working to cement ceremony plans are currently focused on one thing.

“What both admin teams have agreed that we want is for both comprehensive high schools to agree on only one of the plans district-wide, with options clearly lined up for seniors,” Woolfolk said.

And through the ups and downs of planning the end goal has always been to provide as much of a traditional ceremony as possible: caps, gowns, diplomas and all.

“I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it,” Robell said.

Meet Alex Brown, quasi-famous MV activist and ‘Official Guy Who Does Stuff Sometimes I Guess’

STORY BY CEDRIC CHAN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Community activist Alex Brown’s official, voted-on title and email signature is the “Official Guy Who Does Stuff Sometimes I Guess,” but it should probably be changed to be “Official Guy Who Does Stuff All the Time.”

An involved political activist, the Mountain View resident is a part of numerous community organizations advocating for everything from mobile home rent control to environmental sustainability and social justice. 

His lengthy resume includes working with the Mountain View Mobile Home Alliance, Santiago Neighborhood Association, Mountain View Housing Justice Coalition, Silicon Valley Democratic Socialists of America, Mountain View Tenants Coalition, Mountain View YIMBY, Mountain View Coalition for Police Reform and Accountability, Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning, Balanced Mountain View and Alphabet Workers Union.

“I’m sure that there are other ones that I forgot that just slipped my mind,” Brown said. “Yeah, there are probably others.”

Estimating that he attends an average of eight to nine meetings per week, Brown, pictured above with neighbor and MV Mobile Home Alliance administrator Bee Hanson, said he juggles simultaneous video calls on multiple computers by reading live transcripts on one and listening to the other — and that’s just for his various advocacy groups and city council meetings.

He laughed that he is able to keep up with such a packed Zoom schedule by having “no free time.”

“Gotta dedicate a lot of time to it,” Brown said. “And that’s how most of [the organizations] work. It’s just the people who are able to spend the time to show up to things, that’s what counts.”

Surprisingly, Brown said he is not a fan of having responsibilities or obligations despite taking it upon himself to make change in his community.

“I know I do a lot, but I don’t want people to expect it,” Brown said. “It’s fun if they’re just surprised.”

His consistent appearances and punchy remarks at city meetings have made Brown somewhat famous in local politics. 

One of his moments to shine was during a City Council meeting last December in response to the number of street signs necessary to enforce Measure C.

“There’s nothing more attractive than signposts with giant letters on them,” Brown said sarcastically during the meeting. “Because who needs trees? At some point the sign density will be great enough to support its own ecosystem. Wow — very priorities, many wisdom, so leadership, much proud.” 

But as memorable as his comments are, Brown said he is not one for planning and usually comes up with his lines on the fly, jotting down what he wants to say on a piece of paper after listening to other people’s comments and council presentations.

“I try to keep my comments short because I want them to be something worth hearing,” he said.

Saying that he hopes people he encounters will remember him, Brown expressed his disappointment when one of the Rental Housing Committee officials allegedly pretended to not know him and asked what his name was, even though he had been at every meeting. 

“I was like, ‘Vanessa! Gah!’ … Come on,” Brown said. 

Other than “Vanessa,” most city officials remember his name.

“Yeah, they all know me,” he said. “I’ve talked to each of them one on one multiple times. And some of them I chat with regularly because they’re people who want to get involved, want to do stuff and usually have strong opinions, and sadly I know what that’s like.”

When asked why it was “sad” that he has strong opinions, he said “it’s gotta be easier otherwise, right?” 

Growing up in a conservative household in Paradise Valley, Ariz., Brown said he was always “politically aware on different levels.” But this interest didn’t translate into his current activism until he moved to Mountain View. 

In 2015, the mobile home park Brown lived in saw rent prices skyrocket from around $900–$1,000 to $2,000 over the course of a couple of months. Brown, who by day is a software engineer at Google, has never been personally affected by the gentrification in the region, but his neighbors and friends were.

There was the couple near the front of the park with a pet bird, the rental right next to his that turned over owners three times in seven years, the guy in the beret who would walk around the park smoking a cigar.

“What was his name? Gary?” he said. “Nice guy — fragrant. … I know a lot of people that have moved on.”

Costs were so high, according to Brown, that many of the residents who were priced out of the park weren’t able to find buyers who could afford it, and the park’s flyers stopped listing the prices since they were no longer a selling point.

Brown became increasingly active in local politics since then, and by 2017, he was attending every city council meeting. 

“There’s a shuttle that would take me from work to Castro and El Camino [where city hall is],” Brown said. “And so I timed it right where I’d be able to grab a mint tea from the corner and then just walk over.”

Despite his prolific appearances at those council meetings, Brown doesn’t think that public comment should entirely dictate the council’s actions. If council were to respond fully to each of these comments, he said, it would “ping pong back and forth between very vocal opinions about how things should operate.”

“It is strong stances, it’s emotion, it is something to be considered,” Brown said. “But, I mean, that’s not legislation. That’s not how actual things [work] and I’ve never seen them work.”

And while he has clashed with council on numerous issues, Brown thinks they’re doing the best they can. The “default mode” in which council members don’t immediately take action, he said, makes sense so long as they are considering and learning from what they hear.

“Everyone’s just … trying to do something that they think is how they should be operating at any given moment,” he said. “It’s not always in alignment with the other people, but they’re trying. Most of the time, at least you think — you hope.”

Brown recently applied to be appointed to two groups: the Rental Housing Committee, which enforces rent laws, and the Public Safety Advisory Board, which will advise council on matters like policing.

His chances of being appointed are slim, Brown said, but “I’m gonna act like I have a shot because I think that’s the only reasonable way to act.”

“It would be fascinating if they tried to appoint me to both — just like the whole smoke the pack strategy,” he added. “They’re gonna cure me of my activism.”

Either way, Brown isn’t planning on stepping back from politics anytime soon. Next up: pushing through rent protection for mobile home residents just like him.

Anticipating vaccinations, MVLA teachers’ union agrees to April full hybrid return if in orange tier

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN AND CARLY HELTZEL, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Update (Monday, March 8): DTA President David Campbell clarified to the Post that he was mistaken, and the district’s hybrid return is not in fact contingent upon the county being in the orange tier by April 19. Click here for the latest information.

The Mountain View–Los Altos School District will make a full hybrid return on April 19 provided that the county sits in the orange tier of coronavirus transmission, following an agreement reached with the teachers’ union announced last night. 

These latest plans follow months of contentious community debate over the mode and timing of an in-person return, as well as a recent slew of relaxing coronavirus restrictions at the state and county level. 

Although last night’s announcement did not specify the fact, District Teachers’ Association President David Campbell said in an email to the Post this morning that the return is contingent on Santa Clara County reaching the orange tier by April 19.

Currently, the county sits in the red tier, with a positivity rate and health equity quartile positivity rate that in fact qualify the county for the orange tier. The county’s adjusted case rate, however, holds it back.

In a departure from the “stable groups” model that students will return to campus under next week — where students will attend online classes in a study hall–type setting, largely supervised by substitute staff — the mid-April return will see students rotating through classes, receiving live in-person instruction from teachers. 

Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer told the Post this morning that the schedule will have “a.m./p.m. components,” and students will attend classes every week.

A draft model of an “a.m./p.m.” schedule presented in November had the student body split into two groups, with each on campus for half the day and participating in remote learning for the other half.

The district’s announcement last night specified that students will continue to have the option to remain in full distance learning while retaining the same schedule of classes and teachers; logistical specifics, such as how teachers will instruct students in person and online, will likely be fleshed out at the board’s March 8 study session.

The hybrid return, Meyer said, will be mandatory for all teachers, with the exception of those who have health concerns and doctor’s notes who will be permitted to continue teaching from home in an unspecified capacity.

According to Campbell, the union — which had previously expressed a vehement disapproval of any hybrid return — changed its tune following the county’s expansion of vaccinations to phase 1B, which includes teachers.

Campbell said that in an earlier survey conducted by the teachers’ union, 72% of MVLA teachers said they would not return to campus without the vaccine unless the county moved into the yellow tier, which signifies “minimal” spread of coronavirus.

“What changed was that teachers started getting their first vaccine dose,” Campbell wrote to the Post. “That brought a lot of hope to those who were scared to return.”

Perhaps one of the most notable arguments for returning students to campus throughout the past year has been the toll of distance learning on the mental health of students, a point which dozens of students and parents have cited at the district’s board meetings. 

MVLA Board President Fiona Walter echoed that argument in late January in an interview.

“The mental health toll that this is taking on students is enormous,” Walter wrote. “This much togetherness for families, even with really strong relationships, plenty of space, good Wi-Fi, etc., is very difficult. Now imagine it with a couple of families sharing an apartment and many siblings all trying to use the Wi-Fi concurrently … It’s just untenable.”

Throughout the purple tier, the district operated some 15 cohorts across its campuses for critical learners, English learners, students with individualized education programs, supervised study, academic support, AVID and the Advanced Scientific Investigations course.

While Campbell recognized the difficulty of online learning for both students and teachers, he and the union opposed a hybrid return for months, previously maintaining that it would be unlikely for the schools to return at any point this semester.

“Nobody is arguing that students aren’t struggling. Nobody’s arguing that teachers aren’t struggling,” Campbell said in an interview in January. “The argument that can’t be made is that it’s a good idea to get somebody sick. Nobody will defend that argument. And by forcing us to go back sooner than it’s proven to be safe, it’s just dangerous.”

But ongoing negotiations with the district about evolving federal, state and county guidelines along with teacher vaccine eligibility led the union to the orange tier compromise. 

In January, Campbell said that even with the vaccine he would be hesitant to return in-person, citing a lack of scientific evidence that proves whether or not the vaccine prevents transmission of the virus. Campbell said that many teachers, including himself, have concerns about bringing COVID-19 home to their families. 

“We still need to be cautious on campus,” Campbell wrote earlier today. “We need social distancing, we need masks, and we need air flow in our classrooms. We need students to be careful when traveling to and from campus — leaving campus doesn’t mean that it’s a no-mask zone. We all need to do our part in protecting ourselves and our peers.” 

He did, however, express a degree of cautious optimism. 

“We are pleased to bring teachers and students back on campus,” Campbell wrote. “Although we recognize that it’s going to require a lot of adaptation for all involved.”

“This conversation has been ongoing for many months with the end goal of students and teachers on campus in their classrooms,” Walter wrote to the Post this morning. “Yesterday it all came together and I’m very excited to be moving forward.”

MVLA board approves in-person return in red tier

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, CARLY HELTZEL AND OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

The Mountain View–Los Altos School District board tonight unanimously approved the plans and budget for an optional in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions, but did leave room for further amendment later this month. 

Tonight’s development serves as an addendum to the board’s previous approval of a plan that would’ve seen the district take its first steps to an in-person return in the orange tier, presumably speeding up the timetable for a broader hybrid return sometime in the orange or yellow tiers.

Anticipating loosening guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trustees had considered pushing the approval out two weeks, but ultimately voted to approve the plan at tonight’s meeting in the event that the county moves into the red tier before the end of the month.

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.

PLANS

Under the district’s return model, students will work on campus once a week in a “study hall” format, participating in remote classes while physically present in a classroom with other students from the same “stable group.”

In a departure from the current “cohort” model in operation throughout the purple tier, the number of students in a classroom will not be limited to 14, instead only limited by the number of students that can fit in the room maintaining a 6-foot distance.

Stable groups will be assigned to specific “zones” on campus, with no shared facilities, although students within the groups will still be held to distancing restrictions; the extra step of separating the broader groups would in theory provide another layer of safety.

State guidance puts no cap on the size of stable groups, although tentative district plans set the largest group at around 90, for the most part assigned by grade level.

Last week, Associate Superintendent of Personnel Services Leyla Benson indicated to the Post that the district is operating some 15 cohorts across its sites, including cohorts for critical learners, English learners, students with individualized education programs, supervised study, academic support, AVID and the Advanced Scientific Investigations course. It is currently unclear how these cohorts will be affected by these latest plans.

The district’s tentative schedule for the first three weeks of an in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions (via MVLA school district)

The district’s tentative schedule outlines a phased approach that will bring increasing numbers of students on campus over a three-week period, allowing additional time to hire more substitute staff and work out logistical kinks. 

Substitute teachers will supervise the groups, rather than full-time teachers who will still run remote classes, although District Teachers’ Association President Dave Campbell indicated that some full-time staff may volunteer to supervise groups.

The district’s approved budget for the in-person return in the red tier of coronavirus restrictions (via MVLA school district)

The plan does come with a hefty price tag of $1.2 million, in part funded by federal coronavirus relief aid, largely put toward the additional substitute teachers needed to supervise groups.

That budget, however, was quickly approved by trustees, with the majority of the debate surrounding the return plans themselves.

As bemoaned by a handful of community members during the meeting’s public comment, the study hall format doesn’t allow for any in-person instruction, with the learning experience being essentially the same as remote learning — a far cry from a handful of other high schools across the nation currently participating in full-on hybrid instruction with in-person lectures and activities.

“The benefit is [students] get this social interaction during lunch, during break and after classes,” Distance Learning Administrator Teri Faught argued. “This is our first stage in getting our students back in classes in a very structured environment.”

In a district survey, a majority of students indicated interest in returning to campus if “conditions safely allow,” but a similar majority rejected a hypothetical in-person return similar to the study hall format approved by the board tonight.

OPPOSITION TO BROADER HYBRID RETURN

While the teacher’s union expressed some degree of support for the district’s plans for the red tier — largely because teachers will continue operating remotely, with only substitute staff supervising groups in-person — the union has previously expressed vehement disapproval of any broader hybrid return that’d include in-person instruction, as opposed to the essentially remote model of tonight’s approved plan.

There is currently no indication that any plans for such a hybrid return are in the works, as well as at what point that return could even happen. Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer previously indicated that that may happen sometime in the yellow tier, but any plans at this point would be subject to collective bargaining with the teacher’s union.

“I think the vast majority of teachers are pretty freaked out about returning right now,” Campbell, the union president, said in an interview with the Post in January.

Conceding that teachers and students alike are struggling through distance learning, Campbell said that the potential cost of bringing large groups back on campus could be its own “superspreader event.”

“You want me to expose myself, and sacrifice my life potentially?” Campbell said. “I think when you look at the trade off, making it through a couple months and surviving at home is a lot better than going back in person and losing a classmate, losing a teacher, losing a family member because we opened up too soon.”

Los Altos High School science teacher Darren Dressen runs a cohort of students enrolled in the specialized, hands-on Advanced Science Investigation class. 

His 22 students rotate their in-person days so only about six to eight students are in the classroom at one time; they work on their projects in the lab during third period and go to their other classes on Zoom.

Dressen, echoing Campbell’s disapproval of a hybrid return, said he knows several teachers across the country whose schools have tried to return using a hybrid model and had to go back to remote learning due to an outbreak or “logistical nightmares.”

“Everywhere I’ve looked on message boards, it’s a disaster. It just doesn’t work very well,” Dressen said. “So I wouldn’t be up for that type of hybrid learning.” 

Dressen addressed how the different models of hybrid learning, including weekly alternating groups of students on campus or breaking up the day into morning and afternoon cohorts, are ineffective and “messy,” especially with the possibility that students could have to change schedules or switch teachers.

Another teacher who oversees an academic support cohort on Wednesdays, Michael Prehn, said that he knows many teachers would not want to or be able to return in-person because it is too much of a safety risk; however, as Prehn said he is healthy and not in contact with any at risk people, he chose to volunteer as a teacher for the original in-person cohorts.

“I think a lot of teachers would love to be back in the classroom, but for a lot of people, they’re extremely worried and anxious that if you were going to be exposed to a virus, that they could really hurt someone that they love,” Prehn said.

Campbell similarly cited this as one of his greatest concerns with returning — even after being vaccinated, as there is no evidence that vaccinated individuals can’t carry and spread the virus — as the reason why he didn’t sign up to teach a cohort.

“My wife would not let me. It’s just a matter of bringing it home; we’ve had cohorts shut down because people got exposed, we’ve had people test positive,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to do that to my wife. She doesn’t deserve that.”

And although his curriculum has been cut down to the bare bones and the costs of distance learning by far outweigh any potential benefits — such as not having to commute from San Francisco every day — he said everyone has persisted and persevered.

“I’ve been amazed, just absolutely amazed, at how resilient my students are and how engaged they are,” Campbell said. “I love seeing their smiling faces on the zoom. Again, this is not as good as in-person, but I think it’s the next best thing.”

Gil Rubinstein contributed to the reporting on this story.