STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, JONAS PAO AND MELODY XU, PHOTO COURTESY WYNNE SATTERWHITE
Almost exactly a year since campuses first shuttered to stem the tide of a raging pandemic, high schoolers in the Mountain View–Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified school districts returned to classrooms this week.
We spoke to students in both school districts to hear about their experiences taking their tentative first steps back on campus just days ago.
MOUNTAIN VIEW–LOS ALTOS
MVLA seniors returned to campus on Tuesday under the district’s “stable groups” model, participating in remote classes with other peers in a study hall–type format.
Mountain View senior Ava Hinz was one of those students.
“I think the most beneficial thing was definitely just being able to see my peers, even though I think only 70 [seniors] signed up for it,” Hinz said. “Everyone was very willing to talk to one another. I feel like everyone’s kind of in their cliques, but those cliques kind of just opened up because everyone’s been so isolated.”
Around 630 total students across the district have signed up for stable groups, with freshmen visiting campuses on Wednesday and Thursday for an orientation program after the Tuesday senior return.
All grade levels will return next week, with juniors on Mondays, freshmen on Tuesdays, seniors on Thursdays and sophomores on Fridays, with Wednesdays reserved for cohorts and asynchronous learning.
Hinz said that while the stable groups aren’t anything close to a normal school day — she noted that she felt oddly isolated being in a classroom with other students, all participating in different remote classes — the return was a welcome change from nearly a year of distance learning.
“It’s been difficult,” she said. “I remember the first day of distance learning was just one of the most underwhelming things I’ve ever experienced.”
Fellow Mountain View senior Ethan Stone had nothing but praise for the stable groups.
“It was so nice to be back doing school in a classroom with other people as it gave me more motivation to work,” he wrote in a text message to the Post. “It felt like the first day of school, which felt great. It was so nice to have a change [of] pace, just something different.”
Both Hinz and Stone agreed that the social interaction during breaks were the highlights of their first day back, lending credence to what proponents of in-person learning have argued for months — that in-person social interaction will greatly benefit a demographic hard-hit mental health–wise throughout the pandemic.
“I was very skeptical of the plan going into it, but I was like ‘You know what, I’m going to go into it, there’s nothing I can lose,’ and I’m happy I went,” Hinz said.
For Leyla Benson — who’s played an instrumental role in helping the district navigate fast-changing guidance for school reopenings as the district’s associate superintendent of personnel services and COVID designee — this week’s return finally bears fruit to months of hard work spent planning for an in-person return.
“We were in negotiations [with the teacher’s union] today and I got a picture of the Los Altos cohorts,” Benson said. “I didn’t expect to react like I did — I was a high school principal and teacher before, but I’ve been in [human resources] so long that I’m kind of buried in the logistics — but I saw the picture and it really took me back to ‘Oh my gosh it’s so great to see everybody.’”
She said that other district staff on a group chat were similarly ecstatic.
“We’ve been running cohorts and athletics, but there was something about this that was different,” she said, referring to small groups largely for English learners, supervised study, academic support and special education students that the district has operated for the past few months.
She noted that she wouldn’t have been nearly as excited if the district weren’t able to provide so many options for its families to choose from based on comfort level, with the district’s ongoing self-guided “Option B” remote learning, as well as the remote “Option A” that will continue even as students return to campus.
Los Altos freshman Katie Skaggs — who visited campus on Wednesday for the orientation, but chose not to participate in the freshman stable groups that start next week — said she was excited to get a tour of the campus, which she’s only visited part of before for cross country practice.
“It’s very big,” Skaggs said. “I remember … I thought Egan was big, but it’s not, it’s pretty small. But I feel like I’ll get the hang of it.”
She said that while some of her peers were probably forced to go by their parents, the other students in her group seemed to be generally just as excited as she was.
Skaggs reported a relatively smooth transition from middle to high school, noting that she expected and was prepared for the increased workload; she also said she’s faring well in distance learning, which is part of the reason that she chose not to participate in a stable group.
“I don’t think [stable groups] would’ve benefited me much because, you know, I’m lucky and I have a desk in my room and I think I do pretty okay in my room,” she said. “I get decent grades, and I’m happy where I am. … For me personally, I didn’t see a point in just doing Zoom in a different spot that I’m not used to.”
Skaggs did, however, say that she’ll return in April when the district transitions to its full hybrid model because she feels she’ll benefit from the actual in-person instruction. Both Stone and Hinz will also participate in the district’s hybrid instruction.
“We have been thinking, brainstorming, developing, negotiating return plans since last March,” Benson wrote in a later text message to the Post. “Adjusting to all the twists and turns during this unprecedented pandemic journey. More time and energy than we could have ever imagined has been spent on this most important topic. It is now, one year later, that we are seeing the steps that were once only imagined become reality.”
PALO ALTO UNIFIED
PAUSD’s “Zoom in a room” model, first introduced at a Feb. 9 school board meeting, places students in the same classroom as their teacher — but while still tuning in via Zoom.
Students are allowed to physically attend school on their designated days of the week; the plan’s lack of commitment allows students a choice between distance learning and in-person learning on a day-to-day basis.
For Paly sophomore Karrie Huang, returning to campus on Tuesday was a somewhat spontaneous decision that ended up proving worthwhile.
“It was very well organized,” Huang said. “There were these little feet telling you which direction you should walk down the hallway, they had a bunch of hand-washing tables set up … and all the desks that you could use had plastic shields.”
Like most students, Huang initially had concerns about returning to campus — specifically about classroom dynamics — following such a long period of fully distanced learning. However, her interactions from this first day back on campus proved them wrong.
“You’d think it’d be really awkward, but the thing is, the teacher doesn’t really look at you. They’re in their corner, wearing their mask and looking into their computer, and you’re sitting at your desk looking at your computer,” Huang said.
Despite her equally positive experience with fully distanced learning up until this point in the school year, attending “Zoom in a room” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will likely become a regular occurrence for Huang.
“I probably will go again next week,” Huang said. “My experience was pretty good, and it’s good to build a relationship with your teachers … and talk to friends, and to have a school environment.”
Paly sophomore Owen Kuwayti also decided to go to in-person school for fear of missing out on the experience of returning to school and meeting up with friends. But unlike Huang, Kuwayti left the campus with feelings of disappointment.
“I went yesterday, and I thought it wasn’t worth it.” Kuwayti said. “Even if there were hands-on activities, I just didn’t want to do it again because there were three people in some of my classes, and it’s a lot less comfortable than online school.”
Not only did Kuwayti feel like his classes were unusually barren, in general, he felt like the campus was abnormally empty compared to the usual hustle and bustle of pre-covid school.
“At lunch, none of my close friends were there, so I kind of had to go find someone that I knew and start talking with them, which was a little bit awkward, but it ended up being okay,” Kuwayti said.
Kuwayti said that if students had even a minor say in who they would go to school with, his experience would have been significantly better because he would have been able to interact with more of his close friends.
Despite the awkwardness and lack of students at school, Kuwayti felt like all his classes were extremely safe, with one exception: physical education.
“We played kickball, which was still distanced and stuff, but it wasn’t like sitting behind plastic barriers on opposite sides of the classroom not talking to each other at all,” he said. “It was just a different kind of experience.”
Still, Kuwayti hopes to be able to get some of his close friends to go to school on the same day.
“I think it might be fun to coordinate with some people that are in my classes to go together, so when we go to lunch, we’re all together,” Kuwayti said. “But I think otherwise, … unless it’s a special case, I don’t think I would go back.”