Getting a cheesecake from Basuku is like winning the lottery

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MADISON YUE, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

Melt-in-your mouth creamy, deeply caramelized and notoriously hard to come by nowadays, Charles Chen’s Basque cheesecakes have burst onto the Bay Area food scene. Basuku Cheesecakes, founded by Chen, has gained a cult following during the pandemic and now boasts pop-ups in San Francisco, Oakland and Palo Alto as well as national shipping. 

Barely a year ago, Chen, a food consultant, began baking for the first time as a hobby during the pandemic. He was intrigued by Basque cheesecake — a fusion of a traditional Spanish cheesecake and a Japanese style souffle cheesecake that has become increasingly popular — and a friend’s tips helped him perfect his own recipe. 

Chen’s cheesecake quickly caught on, with his chef friends posting about it on social media and the cheesecake mania snowballing from there. Chen, who had never expected a business to grow out of his cheesecake experiments, found himself inundated with orders that were quickly overwhelming his kitchen. 

The cheesecake maestro compared his sudden success to getting “struck by lightning,” from the perfect timing of starting pop-ups during the pandemic to the growth of his social media — where Chen has amassed a following of almost 13,000 cheesecake fanatics. 

Chen’s Basque cheesecakes.

Despite his rapid growth, Chen is still a “one man show” who bakes roughly 150 cheesecakes a week and struggles to keep up with the tide of demand. Dubbed the “most coveted cheesecake in the Bay Area” by fans on Instagram, Chen’s cheesecakes have spawned plenty of longing comments from fans who desperately want to get their hands on one. 

“I did not make this cake for it to be something that was exclusive,” said Chen, who recently finished a 33-day stint in the kitchen without a day off. “I’m working six, seven days a week.” 

As for Basuku Cheesecakes’s future, Chen says a permanent storefront is the next step, but he has no intention of expanding his menu beyond his iconic cheesecake. 

“I’m not a baker, not a chef,” Chen said. “I like to specialize in one product and I try my best to make that one product as best as I possibly can.” 

Chen may not be professionally trained, but he’s far from a newcomer to the industry, saying that his perfectionist approach to his cheesecakes comes from a lifetime of growing up in food and beverage. 

“My family had a Japanese restaurant, which operated for 30 years,” Chen said. “It’s just what I do, it’s in my blood, I live and breathe this stuff.” 

Despite all of his success, Chen still feels pressure to produce the best product he can.

“[When I’m] speaking to bakers who’ve been doing this for 25 years versus a year like myself, I say, ‘Every single time I put something in the oven, I’m still nervous,’ and they’re like, ‘Well, that’s because you care.’” 

Aside from keeping up the quality of his cheesecakes, Chen also cares about putting down roots in the community. Chen, who has recently used his social media platform to raise awareness about violence against Asian Americans and support fundraisers, said he wants Basuku Cheesecakes to not only be a go-to for tasty cakes, but to be a brand for people to rely on in rallying the community. 

Working with Oakland businesses, Chen was able to raise $13,000 in donations for the organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Stop AAPI Hate, a number that rose to almost $40,000 with the added support of Silicon Valley companies. 

“Right now, the community needs something to bring us all together,” Chen said. “And whether it’s a cheesecake, whatever it is you know, I’m just trying to do my part to do that.”

Basuku Cheesecakes’ pick up locations: 

The Morris in San Francisco starting at 5 p.m. on Wednesdays 
Nightbird in San Francisco from 10–2 p.m. on Thursdays
The Commis Restaurant in Oakland from 2–3 p.m. on Thursdays
Vina Enoteca in Palo Alto starting at 11 a.m. on Fridays

For more information on how to pre order and frequent updates, check out Basuku Cheesecakes on Instagram.

Teen chefs connect with the community through food

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND AGNES MAR, PHOTOS COURTESY OF CARLY WATSON, AMANDA YUN, KYLIE DE LA CRUZ AND SOFIA RODRIGUEZ BAQUERO

For many, quarantine opened up rare time to explore new new hobbies, from crocheting to creating the perfect loaf of sourdough. But food is more than a brief COVID-19 obsession for these teen chefs; rather, baking bread has been a way to stay connected with their communities during the pandemic.

The Post asked Carly Watson, Amanda Yun, Kylie De La Cruz and Sofia Rodriguez Baquero about their culinary journeys and what they’ve been cooking up during quarantine. 


CARLY WATSON

Carly Watson is a junior at Los Altos High and president of cooking club Hot.S.Pot who also runs an Instagram with her sister Macy, where the two try international recipes. 

The Post:

You have an Instagram (@_carmalized_), where you’re making a dish from all 196 countries — why did you decide to take on that challenge? 

Watson: 

Once I realized quarantine wasn’t going to be two weeks, my sister and I decided that we wanted to take on the challenge of making a dish from every country in the world. We’re still working on that; we’re about halfway done. Discovering recipes from different countries and exploring different cultures makes me want to go visit more countries, especially the smaller ones many people don’t know about. 

The Post:

Tell us about your club Hot.s.pot.

Watson:

The name is based off of the Chinese dish hot pot, and then it’s called hot spot because it’s online. I started it with two of my friends, who are both from China, so we decided to cook different international recipes. We’ve done one from China, a couple American dishes, some from Japan, and each week a different person teaches it. 

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food? 

Watson:

I’ve always really liked cooking, especially cute food, such as animal shaped meringues. I really started liking it when I was three or four, and I would help my dad cook in the kitchen. Over quarantine, just more recently, I started ramping up my cooking. I think it’s pretty therapeutic as well. It’s very relaxing and fun, and pretty rewarding in the end.

The Post:

Where do you get inspiration from?

Watson:

Food is one of my favorite parts of traveling, so it’s kind of cool to take my favorite part of traveling back to my house. It’s helped me reconnect with a lot of people who are from different countries. I can reach out to them and ask them what recipes they recommend from their culture. 

For example, for China, one of my friends took me to Ranch 99, and I’ve never been there before. It was quite an experience. She showed me all the good things and helped me pick out a bunch of unique dishes. She went on a Zoom with me and helped me make Chinese pork dumplings. 

I also have some friends in Germany, so I was able to reach out to them and ask them what German food they would recommend. Some of my sister’s friends were living in Poland, so we asked them for recipes as well.


AMANDA YUN & KYLIE DE LA CRUZ

Amanda Yun and Kylie De La Cruz are sophomores at Palo Alto High School and co-presidents of Paly Eats, a cooking and food journalism club. 

The Post:

Tell us about your club Paly Eats 

Yun:

I was thinking about starting a cooking club for about a year. Kylie and I met in our freshman year and we found out that we had a connection over cooking and baking. So I asked her if she would want to start the club with me. We wanted to introduce others and bring people together over food and have a place for everyone to share and to learn. 

De La Cruz:

I was really excited to start this [cooking] club when I realized that we didn’t have one at Paly. When Amanda talked about it, she wanted to have people learn more about cooking and order dishes from restaurants and recreating it. That sounded like a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of that.

Yun:

Especially with the pandemic, I realized that there were a lot of businesses that are shutting down. I thought that it would be good to introduce people to more restaurants around the area, and kind of give local businesses more attraction since people aren’t going out that much. After we try dishes from a local restaurant, we look online to find similar recipes. Our first restaurants were Jin Sho [on Palo Alto’s California Ave] and Taro San [in Stanford Shopping Center]. So we had people recreate Kakuni Don, a Japanese pork and rice bowl, and wild salmon bento. 

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food? 

Yun:

I actually haven’t been cooking and baking for most of my life. It started around seventh or eighth grade. I just got really interested in a bunch of recipes I used to see on YouTube and different cooking channels. I love Binging with Babish and Joshua Weisman.

De La Cruz:

I’ve been cooking for a while. When I was younger I helped my mom bake cookies, stuff like that. I loved cooking all through middle school, and then with COVID, I’ve been bored, so that’s why I’ve started cooking a lot more.

The Post:

What’s your cooking style?

Yun:

My parents are both really into food; we consider ourselves foodies. Sometimes I go to San Francisco to try new restaurants. Like I said, YouTube has been a big influence on me in terms of what I cook. I find things that interest me and that seem challenging. I like to experiment with things that I haven’t tried before or things I haven’t heard of before, and just try to recreate them. 

I look forward to the weekends when I can escape for a few hours into something I’ve been waiting to do the whole week. I would definitely say that cooking is a distraction and something to look forward to at the end of the week. 

Yun’s raspberry, pistachio and passionfruit dessert. (courtesy Amanda Yun)

De La Cruz:

I prefer to make desserts, I just find that more interesting. My dad is from Peru, so I’ve grown up on a lot of rice based or noodle based dishes. I love playing around with the proportions of ingredients, because I believe I can do that a lot more with desserts than other dishes. At the end of finals week, I was so happy to be done with finals so I baked a cake. I definitely find baking to be a stress reliever.

De La Cruz’s Valentine’s Day and Peru sugar cookies. (courtesy Kylie De La Cruz)

The Post:

What’s your favorite part of the cooking process? 

De La Cruz:

When I’m trying to change a recipe, figuring out the proportions and then writing them down is fun. When I change how much flour or how much sugar and then when I see the end product, I’m like, “Yes, I did it. Okay, now I can change this for real.” I like being able to see that.

Yun:

I enjoy the process, especially with things such as bread. I like to knead the dough, or doing things with my hands, and the idea that I’m creating something. I tried this experimental recipe, I was inspired by a bunch of desserts you see in fancy restaurants where they’ve got a bunch of different components. I tried layering a bunch of little cakes, and then sticking them into molds, and then kind of making my own mousse recipe based on other recipes I’d seen. I like the idea that I can create something new and something that all tastes good.

You can check out the Paly Eats food blog here and their Instagram here


SOFIA RODRIGUEZ BAQUERO

Sofia Rodriguez Baquero is a senior at LAHS who posts photos of her culinary creations to her food Instagram @cookwithsof.

The Post:

What sparked your passion for food?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

I’ve been in the kitchen since I was little with my parents — they cook a lot, and they taught me a lot of things. And I just like sharing food with other people. It’s really fun because I’ve been able to talk to people I wouldn’t be reaching out to otherwise. 

It’s been really nice to share and like have friends text me pictures of food. And they’re like, “Oh, I was thinking about you when I was making this.” And it’s just so exciting.

The Post:

What’s your cooking style?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

My cooking style is definitely looking at a lot of recipes and then not following any of them. I keep temperatures and cooking times in mind as I go, but everything else I’ll either eyeball or be like, “Oh, I don’t really want to use that.” I’m very chaotic in the kitchen. Like a chaotic good, I’d say. 

The Post:

Where do you get inspiration from?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

I think a good amount is from social media, just seeing what friends and chefs are cooking and sharing. And also food magazines: I really like Bon Appétit’s magazine and New York Times Cooking a lot. When I’m kind of not paying attention in class and I open a new tab, it’s normally to look at recipes. I have a running list of things that I want to try just written down in a notebook.

A lot of the food that are staples in my family are things that we picked up while traveling [or] restaurants around here just because we have so many different cuisines around us.

The Post:

Who are your favorite chefs?

Rodriguez Baquero: 

My most favorite-ist is Melissa King. I remember in sixth grade, we had to write an essay about somebody that we admire and I wrote about her. Other people were writing about athletes and singers, and here I was writing about a chef. But she’s so cool, she has such interesting flavor combos. Another favorite of mine is David Chang. I love his restaurant Momofuku.

Activists protest possible use of Moffett Field as detention center

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTOS BY SADIE HINE / SPECIAL TO THE MIDPENINSULA POST

Update (Sunday, March 21): The Department of Health and Human Services has decided to pass on using Moffett Field as a detention center.

Waving colorful signs reading, “Kids Don’t Belong in Cages,” “F*ck Your Borders,” and “Free Them All,” local activists gathered outside of Moffett Field yesterday to protest the possible use of NASA’s Mountain View facilities as a temporary detention center for unaccompanied migrant children, as border officials struggle to handle a surge of migrants crossing the border in recent months.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported last week that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) requested NASA to determine if vacant properties at Moffett Field, specifically housing typically used for student interns, could be used as temporary shelter.

The atmosphere yesterday was one of community — the protest bringing together many different activist groups who greeted each other warmly and stood through the sudden downpour of rain together — but also outrage as protestors decried the use of Moffett Field as well as the federal policy of detention, calling for wide immigration reform from President Biden’s administration.

“They say this is a stop-gap but they have a long history of these temporary influx centers becoming permanent. And there are alternatives on the table and a lack of creative thinking on what to do about this,” said protestor Pete Weiss, an attorney for Pangea Legal Services who represents unaccompanied migrant children.

“The United States has the resources to not have to detain any of these kids,” Weiss added. “A lot of these children have actually been separated from loving family members. U.S. immigration policy will still separate you from anybody besides a biological parent that brings you to the border.”

Weiss also denounced Biden’s dispatching of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on March 14 to assist in the processing of migrant children at the border, instead calling for federal officials to work with group homes and NGOs that specialize in childcare. 

“Instead of creating these mass detention centers around the country to deal with the surge, we could be marshalling resources to send child welfare specialists to the border to quickly interview children with the person who brought them to determine whether it’s a loving family relationship and release them to await the immigration process here in this country,” Weiss said. 

Protestors also called for accountability from Biden and more drastic reforms. 

“We know the level of pain, trauma and the level of atrocities that are happening to our children are very real,” said Maricela Gutiérrez, Executive Director of SIREN, addressing the crowd. “We want to abolish ICE, we want to defund [Customs and Border Protection], and we want to dismantle detention centers, period.”

As for next steps, protestors passed around a petition urging Congress to prevent the use of Moffett Field and end all detention, and SIREN organizers said they hope to stage another protest during a future HHS inspection of Moffett Field. 

“We’re not going to stand for ICE setting up in our backyard,” said Tha Hood Squad founder JT Faraji. “We’re not gonna tolerate that sh*t in Silicon Valley, we’re not gonna tolerate any more camps opening up.”

Foothills Park renamed Foothills Nature Preserve, city to implement annual passes

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

The Palo Alto City Council tonight voted unanimously to rename Foothills Park to Foothills Nature Preserve, implement annual passes and set the attendance cap to 300 visitors at a time, although the city manager may increase the cap up to a maximum of 650 visitors. 

The council set annual passes at $50 for Palo Alto residents and $65 for non-residents, exempting veterans, low-income visitors, student drivers and disabled visitors from the fee. Visitors can purchase passes online and by phone starting Feb. 27. 

These changes join a host of modifications — such as the preserve’s new $6 vehicle entry fee — made by the city after opening the park to the public in December brought on an influx of visitors

There remain a few loose ends, including when the entry fee will go into effect. The implementation of the changes is up to the Parks and Recreation Commission, which will discuss further details at their meeting tomorrow, such as whether or not to charge an entry fee for pedestrians and cyclists.

Gluten-free bakery Sweet Diplomacy brings a community of food lovers often left out, together

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND MELODY XU, PHOTOS BY EMILY MCNALLY

When Melody Hu happened to run out of regular flour while baking muffins at home one afternoon five years ago, she discovered gluten-free, mochiko rice flour to be a perfectly delicious substitute. The result of this accidental discovery is Sweet Diplomacy, a 100% gluten-free bakery nestled in downtown Los Altos. 

Sweet Diplomacy, which has always been a to-go operation, began with an uncertain start, opening its storefront in December 2019 mere months before the pandemic began, but Hu said community support has been essential to helping the fledgling bakery thrive.

Hu said Sweet Diplomacy’s mission is to “bring people together to celebrate world flavors and inclusive tastes.” In addition to being entirely gluten-free, the bakery accommodates a range of other dietary restrictions, serving dairy-free, vegan and paleo desserts.

As for those “world flavors,” many of Sweet Diplomacy’s desserts draw influence from European, Asian and American cuisines. Hu, a native of Taiwan who grew up eating mochiko rice-based desserts, said she wants to capture the Bay Area’s unique mixing and matching of cultures in her baking. 

“When you come to Sweet Diplomacy, not only are you getting special diet-friendly treats, but we’re also bringing you on a kind of culinary magic carpet [ride] with us to try different flavors,” Hu said, referring to the shop’s Flavor of the Week cupcakes, which can range from Japanese flavors to Mexican hot chocolate. 

Sweet Diplomacy’s signature gluten-free cupcakes topped with Italian meringue buttercream. (Emily McNally)

As for the special diet-friendly element of the bakery, surprisingly neither Hu nor the rest of the staff have dietary restrictions. But Hu said that she was inspired by the community of people she encountered in the bakery’s early days selling gluten-free mochiko muffins at farmers’ markets and pop-ups. 

“These are people who enjoy good food — handmade, flavorful food — but who also have dietary restrictions,” Hu said, and serving that community “became a passion and a calling that [she] fell into.”

As one can imagine, adapting recipes for desserts that are traditionally chock-full of sugar, butter and wheat flour to be gluten-free and special diet–friendly comes with many challenges. 

Hu said the hardest part is using limited ingredients to create the right textures and flavors that make a dessert recognizable. In the earlier days of her operation, she would list every ingredient on Excel spreadsheets and tweak recipes by the gram, conducting countless trials to get each one perfect. 

“Gluten-free and vegan baking is about as hard as it gets,” Hu said. “It really took a lot of time and a lot of tears and scraping of bottoms of pans.”

Now, with a few years of experience under her belt and the help of team members, she’s simplified her process for creating recipes. 

But more than its carefully crafted treats, manager AnaLisse Johansson says Sweet Diplomacy is built on a strong relationship between the team and the community members they serve. Many of their customers trust the bakery to provide for their dietary needs, which in some cases can be life-threatening. For full transparency, ingredients of each product are listed on the bakery’s website so customers know exactly what they’re eating. 

As for those without special dietary restrictions, Hu is fully aware of the negative perceptions surrounding gluten-free foods that can put off customers.

“You know, we’ve had remarks like ‘What, this is gluten-free? Okay, no thanks.’ And they just run away — like literally they will dash out the store because they associate gluten-free with ‘disgusting,’” said Hu.

Hu attributes that stigma to people being accustomed to the taste of wheat as well as many gluten-free recipes being created out of medical necessity. However, she hopes customers can look past that and be open-minded about giving her desserts a try.

After all, that willingness to try new things is central to Sweet Diplomacy’s mission.

“We bring people together; even if you have all these different dietary restrictions, even if you come from different cultures, you can still come to the table and eat with us,” Johansson said. 

Sweet Diplomacy is open in downtown Los Altos Tuesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Antoine’s Cookie Shop serves up nostalgia by the dozen

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG AND ARI STROBER, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

In Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” a single bite of the eponymous dish transports the sour-faced food critic, Anton Ego, to a memory of himself as a child, enjoying his mother’s cooking. Seeing a customer experience that involuntary sense of nostalgia is Antoine Tang’s favorite part of his job as owner of Antoine’s Cookie Shop.

“When I hear a customer have that kind of response to the cookies, I’m extremely proud,” Tang said. “Especially when I get an older person — I’m talking about someone in their 80s — that comes into my shop and buys the cookies, and they tell me, ‘These cookies are like what I had when I was a kid.’”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop, which just opened a second location at Palo Alto’s Town and Country Village, is a cozy nook with a 10-cookie menu of classic flavors (although, the crowd favorite is hands down the unique Cookies N’ Cream).

Thanks to community support, business hasn’t slowed down during the pandemic at the shop’s original San Mateo location, and the store’s January Palo Alto opening was met with a warm welcome from customers, selling two thousand cookies on opening day. Tang credits his success to the quality of his ingredients, consistency, and excellent employees.

“The first weekend in Palo Alto was extremely busy for us,” Tang said. “I think a lot of people came from different nearby towns. Our job right now is to win over the local community, and to let them know that we’re here.”

But Antoine’s wasn’t always this big — it began as a solo operation out of Tang’s house eight years ago. Tang started baking cookies “just for fun,” setting out to find the perfect chocolate chip cookies to satisfy his sweet tooth. But the 30-cookie batches were too much for him to eat alone, so he began sharing his cookies with his friends, who pushed him to take the next step to make his hobby into a full-fledged business.

“They told me, ‘Hey, you should sell these,’ and I said, ‘Eh, who’s gonna buy them?’” Tang said. “Then one of them said, ‘I’ll buy them.’ And then she bought some.”

That initial support from his friends pushed Tang to launch an online business delivering cookies all around the Bay Area. Over the next three years, Tang grew the business gradually, building a website and streamlining his ordering process. Demand started picking up, and Tang, who had never imagined starting a shop, began to sell up to 300 cookies a day.

“There was one Christmas where we got in so many orders that I knew I couldn’t keep up,” Tang said. “So I shut down the ordering page on the website around the 12th of December in 2015. And then I was like, ‘Okay, we really got to find a store.’”

Tang opened his first brick and mortar location in downtown San Mateo in 2016, where he could interact with customers face to face for the first time and began to build a staff.

“One of the things that really surprised me about opening the shop was how fulfilling it is to provide dignified employment to folks, especially young people,” Tang said, “A big part of the business is offering a safe place for young people to come work. And that’s something that I’m very proud of.” 

What began with Tang Googling “world’s best chocolate chip recipe” has now grown into a full-fledged business with his own recipes that brings freshly baked cookies and joy to customers around the Bay Area.

“I want people to eat the cookies and be very happy,” Tang said. “I want them to share with a friend. It’s a very shareable dessert. I love when people bring it to parties and they look like the hero.”

Antoine’s Cookie Shop is open in Town and Country Shopping Center Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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.

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.

Artist of the Month: Dasha Korepanova delights with her whimsical creatures

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

Dasha Korepanova used to sell her character designs in exchange for virtual currency in a video game. Now, the Los Altos junior is inundated with so many requests for commissions — paid in real money, not in-game “spuds” — that it’s become difficult for her to manage during school. 

“I would sell my stuff for 10 cents and hope and pray that it sold,” Korepanova said. “Now, it’s surprising to me how many people want to support my stuff.” 

Korepanova primarily uses Instagram to share her work, posting what she described as a mix of animal character design and fan art. Recently, her following on Instagram has grown, rising from 300 followers to 400 in just one month.

But she said numbers have never been her focus — it’s interacting with her fellow artists and followers that brings her the most joy.

“It’s really nice seeing how the same people come back to your posts,” Korepanova said. “The same people say, ‘Wow, I love this,’ ‘This made my day,’ and I think just building that tiny community of people who really like my art is what means a lot to me.”

Korepanova’s favorite artwork is fan art of a character from the video game “Hades.” (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

Community has always been an essential part of Korepanova’s art. Before middle school, Korepanova said that her perception and involvement in the art scene was limited to doodling for fun and copying images off the Internet, but her friends changed that completely. She credits these friends for giving her the initial push that helped her get where she is now. 

“When I met my friends, they showed me a different side to this whole art culture and how you can push yourself to make your own characters and your own designs,” Korepanova said.

The originality and quality of Korepanova’s art has mushroomed since those formative middle school years. Since then, her signature style has emerged; if you scroll down Korepanova’s Instagram page, you’ll see a variety of whimsical creatures done in a style that she describes as “muted and painterly.”

But sticking to a consistent style has always been less important than evolution to Korepanova, who said she’s constantly tinkering with her visual approach and embracing experimentation.

“I feel like [art style] always evolves no matter how good your art gets, because you always are influenced by the things around you,” Korepanova said.

Korepanova mostly posts colorful and fantastical creatures like this one on her Instagram. (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

When Korepanova invents a mythical creature, she considers human qualities as well, incorporating distinct personalities that influence the creature’s pose, coloring and visual quirks.

For commissions, clients often give Korepanova a personality profile to work with, but she said she also likes to add her own touch of “snarkiness” and mischief to her creatures.

“It’s a selling factor because people really like to connect with them on an emotional level,” she said. “That’s usually what gets someone to buy it.”

Fan art of another character from “Hades,” Charon, eating a burrito. (courtesy Dasha Korepanova)

Despite her early success, Korepanova’s parents have reservations about her desire to pursue art as a career, but Korepanova attributes that uncertainty to misconceptions about the scope of artists’ work.

“A lot of people think art as a job can only be where you sell your paintings to an art exhibit … but that’s not what modern artists do,” Korepanova said. “I don’t think [they] understand that art and design can be found pretty much anywhere.”

Korepanova said her dream career is creating concept art for video games, movies and television shows. She isn’t under any illusions about the less-glamorous side of the job — expecting she’d be assigned to “draw 40 different rocks” — but she’s fascinated by the possibility of showing her character designs to a broader audience through the mainstream entertainment industry.

“Having the freedom to draw a bunch of different characters and concepts and trying to represent a certain idea would be the closest to what I do now,” Korepanova said.

But until then, Korepanova is focused on experimenting with new techniques and improving as an artist.

“My goal right now is just to find [a style] that I’m happy with and to grow and explore more and just get better,” Korepanova said.

Palo Alto moves to implement $6 vehicle entry fee at Foothills Park

STORY BY OLIVIA HEWANG, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

In a 6–1 vote on Jan. 19, the Palo Alto City Council moved to implement a $6 vehicle entry fee at Foothills Park and lower the attendance cap to 400 visitors. 

The council will review the changes to the city’s municipal code at a second reading on Feb. 1, and the fee will likely go into effect in the next few months.

Following the park’s opening to non-residents in December of last year, the nature preserve saw visitation balloon over the holidays to six times higher than the previous year, sparking concerns over environmental impacts and road safety. 

On Jan. 9, the city temporarily closed the park on weekends and holidays in hopes of mitigating the damage — that came on top of an already lowered attendance cap of 750 visitors, down from the park’s typical cap of 1,000.

The city’s vote stipulates an interim $6 vehicle entry fee, leaving the minutiae of discounts, rules and enforcement to the Parks and Recreation Committee. The city manager also has the power to adjust the attendance cap up to 500 people.