Students petition for academic and wellness reform following Mountain View High death

STORY AND PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Note: Resources for persons feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can be found at the bottom of this story.

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District are petitioning for reform that they say will better ensure the district supports students’ mental health needs, initially prompted by the passing of a Mountain View High School junior earlier this month.

Broadly, students have called for decreased homework loads and other measures meant to alleviate academic stress, as well as a range of solutions to bolster the district’s mental health support.

The circumstances of the death that prompted the petition are not yet public, and students have since disassociated the petition with the passing itself. An original foreword to the petition assumed the cause of death to be suicide, and criticized the school for not properly addressing this most recent death as well as two others over the course of the past three years which were publicly confirmed to be suicides. 

In an interview, Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer stressed the importance of avoiding spreading rumors about the passing out of respect for the family’s privacy and grieving process.

“We certainly do know, though, that that we have lost students to suicide on the Mountain View High campus in the last few years,” Meyer said. “And it is certainly a reminder of how significant that loss is to young people.”

Mountain View senior Marina Reynaud, who created the collaborative document with over 250 signatures, backtracked from that a day after she started circulating the petition. She said that after receiving feedback from another Mountain View student, she decided to change the premise of the petition because it was not her intention to use the deaths to her “benefit” and amplify her own message.

A new foreword to the petition explicitly notes that it “is not intended to be attached to the recent deaths of our MVHS peers.”

“What we are trying to do however, is spread awareness to the administration on the amount of students who do or have dealt with mental health problems during their time in high school,” the foreword continues. “Mental health is a huge issue at Mountain View (and many other schools) that should be addressed.”

HOMEWORK AND COURSE LOAD

One of the most detailed action items on the petition — and a seemingly recurring talking point in the student mental health discussion — is a call for decreased homework loads.

“Teachers should give less homework: It would be beneficial to students’ stress levels if teachers were forced to only assign 30-45 minutes of homework per day,” the petition reads. “Then, the rest of the students’ time can be allotted for studying and extracurriculars.”

According to the 2019–2020 Mountain View student handbook, students in college preparatory and non–UC recognized honors classes can expect up to 2–3 hours of “focused, undistracted homework per week” in each class, which averages out to 36 minutes a night at the top end.

AP and UC-approved honors courses should generally assign 4–5 hours of homework weekly — an average of an hour a night at the top end — the handbook also states.

In an interview, Raynaud reaffirmed her assertion that homework needs to be further limited, but said that there’s more nuance than what’s written in the petition.

“I think sometimes there is homework that’s just kind of busy work that I do agree should [be limited],” Raynaud said. “But homework that is like reading a textbook or actually learning things, I think there’s really no way to shorten that. Especially for AP classes, there’s a certain amount of work you have to do.”

Mountain View junior Abbie Reese, who wrote about overwhelming amounts of homework and the pressure to take AP and honors courses on a widely circulated Instagram post with 700 likes, agreed that AP course loads are inevitably going to be difficult.

“In terms of homework, of course AP teachers have content they need to teach and … it is a harder course,” Reese said. “I think it does get a little iffy when it falls into the category of none of your students can get this done on time and most of them are reaching out to you and saying, ‘We don’t have enough time for this.’”

When asked why students would choose to take AP and honors classes if the college prep homework load is in line with what they see as reasonable, both Raynaud and Reese contended that students are pressured to take AP and honors courses that they can’t handle.

Students, Raynaud claimed, are primarily pressured by their parents and other students, but she also asserted that pressure from some teachers pushes students toward unbalanced course loads.

When asked, Raynaud couldn’t think of any specific school policies or recurring actions the school takes that explicitly encourage students to take courses they can’t handle, but said that it’s “small things” from teachers.

“Today, and I don’t think this was intentional to hurt someone, but my teacher was like, ‘Oh, fill out this form and tell me which AP tests you’re taking.’ And that was under the assumption that everyone in that class was taking an AP test,” Raynaud said.

Raynaud said that the question was posed in an AP class — but that she still thought the implication was harmful.

Reese said that she feels that some of her teachers, though certainly not all, encourage her to take AP and honors courses that she can handle academically, but not in the broader context of the other courses she takes and her own wellness.

She said that her academic counselor has generally done a good job of guiding her toward balanced course loads, and Raynaud suggested that the district hire more academic counselors so that each counselor has fewer students to work with, allowing them to make more individualized and better-informed recommendations to students when choosing courses.

Superintendent Meyer said that while she’s not aware of any policies at the district level specifically about encouraging moderation in course load, there has been conversation on the subject and academic counselors generally guide students toward balanced schedules.

“I do believe that all of our counseling departments do emphasize the importance of balance,” Meyer said. “And counsel students towards making sure that they have a variety of experiences that may include courses that aren’t AP and extracurriculars, and to make sure that they have time within their day.”

The petition also calls for teachers to “plan their schedules so that tests and projects don’t overlap”; implement a “growth mindset” grading system; and allow for more lenient late work policy, although the specifics of those items are unclear, and Raynaud wasn’t entirely certain what she’d want them to look like — some of those points weren’t written by her, as it’s a collaborative document.

“The conversation of balance has been constant,” Wellness Coordinator William Blair said. “Part of our course selection process includes a time management worksheet … that we give students [and] we encourage our teachers to have the conversations with the students about balance, and what’s an appropriate load. … The philosophy of having a balanced workload, I think, is something that we’ve been promoting.”

Meyer said that there has been discussion about limiting AP courses — a suggestion that Reese made — but no specific policy at the moment.

She noted that the district needs to both ensure that students don’t feel compelled to take AP courses but also support “perhaps the smaller number” of students who benefit from and excel in AP courses. She also said that it’s important that the district “open access” for students who aren’t in advanced AP courses at the moment.

Raynaud, for her part, said that she’s undecided on the idea of capping AP courses, because she suspects students might look to pile on other activities like clubs and volunteer organizations to make up for having fewer AP courses.

“I think it just kind of takes away the school part of the stress,” Raynaud said. “But I think … in the end, you’re just going to still be doing a bunch of things for college applications.”

Despite no concrete district-wide policy, the Mountain View student handbook “encourages students to consider the number of AP classes they enroll in, keeping in mind that real college courses frequently require self-directed study that can, at a student’s option, far exceed time specified here.”

The handbook suggests that students who find themselves spending significantly more time than the expected 4–5 hours a week on homework in an AP or honors course speak with their teachers “for help examining their study habits and strategies and for other resources.”

On the topic of homework, Meyer said that there’s research to do moving forward, specifically pertaining to whether homework is contributing to actual mastery of the subject, as opposed to being extra work that’s reinforcing content that’s already solidified.

“So there’s that question around, at what point are you having diminishing returns for homework, and is there a way to assess perhaps differently so students don’t feel compelled to … complete a task as opposed to master the subject?” Meyer said.

“I think we need to look at the stress that comes with feeling compelled to take a very full load of very challenging courses,” she added. “But at the same time, we also need to look within those courses to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do.”

MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES

Alongside the discussion surrounding homework and course loads, the mental health services that the school provides are also a dominant part of the petition and broader conversation.

The petition specifically calls for hiring more therapeutic counselors so that students “don’t have to be on a waiting list” and can “find a counselor that is a good fit for them instead of placing them with the counselor … available at the moment.”

Raynaud, who said she wasn’t completely familiar with the district’s existing infrastructure, also suggested hiring licensed psychotherapists to work in conjunction with the district’s existing support. 

Blair, the district’s wellness coordinator, said that in general, there aren’t any waitlists for the support services that the district offers.

In broad terms, the first step to accessing the district’s services is to fill out the district’s referral form, which can be done by the student in need, a friend, teacher or any other community member. 

“[The intake coordinator] meets with the student to kind of determine what the best support looks like,” Blair said. “Sometimes it’s academic counseling support, sometimes it’s support with social services or therapeutic mental health support. Sometimes it’s more at the administrative level, sometimes it’s about helping to foster communication with teachers and with family. So there’s a wide range of what the need may be.”

The district partners with CHAC, Uplift Family Services and Stanford Psychiatry to provide one-to-one counseling and therapeutic support with a general policy of providing short-term care for students, and later helping with the transition into more long-term care as needed.

Blair acknowledged that the district’s services might not always best serve students, and that the district is “happy to help” students find support elsewhere as needed.

“Almost across the board with all of our providers, we have increased services in the 2021 school year, and we’re expanding services as we hit [next year] as well,” Blair said, speaking of the district’s increased caseload capacity with its partners. “We’re building the infrastructure.”

“We have strong academic counseling, strong college and career counseling and strong therapeutic services,” Meyer said. “But there are the day-to-day stressors and the things that may not qualify you for clinical therapy, where you might need to go talk to someone and think it through and have someone objectively share support.”

Meyer said that the current model in some ways supports those “day-to-day” stressors, but that the district is still talking about the best way to support those needs.

Reese, who said she wasn’t entirely familiar with the support that the district provides in partnership with organizations like CHAC, suggested that the district offer therapeutic counseling services similar to the way it offers academic counselors, although she acknowledged it would take a significant amount of time and money.

Students would be paired with a wellness counselor for their four years in high school just as they are with academic counselors, which Reese contended could help remove some of the barriers like reluctance or lack of information that might prevent students from accessing support.

“I don’t know how well this would coincide with some of the other systems being proposed … But just as a baseline, every student would know exactly … who [to] you reach out to if you’re having a hard time,” Reese said.

Meyer said that the district this year shifted its academic counseling services to include more social emotional learning components, which in fact aligns partially with what Reese suggested.

“Our academic counselors have infused more social emotional support opportunities within their counseling yearly schedule,” Meyer said. “So that involves having time to talk to the students about their goals and and how it’s going with them — more of a check in and shifting away from only talking about what courses you need to graduate and be UC-ready, to really exploring what they’re interested in, what their strengths are and adding in that social emotional component.”

Blair said that many students do reach out to their academic counselors for mental health support, and Meyer added that many teachers, assistant principals and principals fill that role as well.

“I want to say … prior to needing that [clinical] support, our teachers do an excellent job of creating a welcoming environment within their classroom … recognizing that that relationship has to be built to optimize the environment and to optimize learning,” Meyer said.

Blair also cited student leadership classes, freshman orientation programs, academic counseling, tutorial centers and college and career centers all as being a part of broader “preventative” services that foster well being in the student body.

“My message is, if you have a need for support, please reach out, and we’ll do our best to get you connected with the appropriate support,” Blair said.

MOVING ON TOO QUICKLY

Although not included in Raynaud’s petition, a number of students have criticized what they say was a failure on the part of the district to properly address the death.

Reese, who was notified of the death the night prior by a mutual friend and said she was close to the student in middle school, felt that her teachers moved on from the death — as well as the two others in recent memory — far too quickly, and didn’t give students enough room to process it.

“I went through swinging back and forth between feeling numb and sad,” she said. “And then obviously, I had school the next day, and I was just kind of thrown back into a normal schedule. … And it was like, ‘I don’t really know how to process right now, because I feel like I need time to talk about what’s going on.’”

She said that while she thought one or two of her teachers addressed it well — including her first period teacher — the “vast majority” of the staff she interacted with “mentioned it in passing,” then carried on. She added that friends told her that some of their teachers had misgendered the student, which she found particularly frustrating.

As for what specifically she wanted from her teachers, Reese said that she would’ve liked more space to discuss and share feelings.

“This is kind of a weird comparison, but in my AP U.S. history class when [the Capitol insurrection happened], we were given time at the beginning of class to kind of discuss how that made us feel because a lot of us were getting really bad anxiety over it,” she said. “I think I’d like to see some of that — you know, a lot of us need some time to process, maybe share our thoughts to our teacher, get some more personal words.”

Meyer said that since being notified of the student’s death, the district has engaged in daily consultation with experts at Stanford University, the HEARD alliance, Kara and CHAC through Blair’s office to inform best policy.

“We rely very heavily on their guidance,” Blair said. “We’re following best practices set out by the professionals.”

After receiving news of the death, the district sent a message to the community notifying of the loss, and prepared a statement for first period teachers to read in their classes the next day. Blair said that teachers were encouraged to allow space for processing, and added that several support sessions were held for teachers who felt they needed additional guidance navigating the issue.

“Everybody grieves differently, and I think that’s really important,” Blair said. “Some students need the space to process and to talk, [and for] others, part of the grieving process is to not be in that space of processing.”

The school staffed the library with CHAC support staff to provide a space for students who needed additional processing, and also made available a Zoom link for similar support for remote students to “honor all responses to grief.”

Blair said that staff support meetings were also held for Los Altos High School teachers to prepare them should the topic come up in conversation, but Los Altos teachers were not instructed to read Meyer’s statement notifying of the death — which was in line with the expert consultation.

“I do have to say this feedback [about moving on too quickly] is really appreciated,” Meyer said. “Because we’re speaking to our advisors, but we want to make sure that the students have a voice in this as well. And if they’re telling us they need more, they need more.”

NEXT STEPS

Moving forward, Meyer and Blair pledged to have continued conversations about the district’s role in supporting student mental health.

“It has been devastating to see our students mourning, our families mourning and our staff mourning,” Meyer said. “And to that end, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything in our power to not only work to prevent any tragedies, but to support the students who are here and mourning with us.”

“It’s just heartbreaking,” Blair said. “We become educators because we love young people, and we love students, and we want them to thrive. … And it’s difficult watching our young people when they’re struggling. … We want to be there to help them through those struggles and through those challenges.”

Both Blair and Meyer expressed gratitude for the students who have reached out to them with suggestions moving forward, and encouraged students to continue to speak out.

“One of the things that we continue to plan with a more heightened urgency is to have a systemic way to reach out to students and to use their perspective and voice for district-wide improvement,” Meyer said. “One of the reasons that we recently reorganized the district office for the community outreach specialist was to have a systemic way to do that, and to honor the voices of those who are in the classroom all day and have a better vantage point than we do.”

The district recently appointed Los Altos English teacher Michelle Bissonnette to the new role of community outreach specialist, which will be responsible for communicating with and gathering feedback from the community to inform policy across the district.

Meyer said that, in the short term, she plans to share the feedback from students about where their stress comes from and what they think the district can do moving forward with teachers and the board — and to assess in those conversations how, or whether, the district should implement change.

“We knew before, but there certainly is an outcry,” Meyer said. “Students definitely have shared with us that the stress that they’re feeling within the day is very difficult. And so we have to honor and respect that voice and do what we can to support them.”

“It’s an ongoing collaboration,” Blair said. “It takes time, it takes thoughtfulness, it takes a concerted effort — and I think we are all committed to that. It’s the ongoing collaboration that I think will get us to where we want to be.”

Any person feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a crisis counselor, or text “HELLO” to 741741. The Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District’s student referral form can be found here in English, and here in Spanish.

Proposed 2021–2022 PAUSD bell schedules face criticism

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

The Palo Alto Unified School District’s proposed bell schedules for secondary schools in the 2021–2022 school year came under fire at tonight’s board meeting, with many community members voicing concerns about the late end times.

Through the pandemic, PAUSD high school classes have begun at either 9 a.m., 9:40 a.m or 10 a.m. depending on the day, with the end time at 3:05 p.m. The need for a new bell schedule comes as a result of the state’s reversion to pre-pandemic standards for instructional minutes.

While the board is not ultimately tasked with approving schedule proposals, a bell schedule committee on the job includes over 30 students, parents, district staff members and local teachers union leaders. The committee is “on schedule” to finalize 2021–2022 bell schedules in the next couple of weeks, according to a May 7 Superintendent’s Update.

In the latest community survey regarding the new schedule sent on May 5, the committee offered two models of high school schedules, with both setting the start and end times at around 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. to fall in line with the state’s requirements.

Speakers in the open forum section of tonight’s board meeting included Gunn junior Athina Chen, who focused on the potential impact of the proposed later end times on athletes.

“Athletes already have to leave school early anywhere from 2:30 to 3 for matches and games,” Chen said. “Any options for the schedules mean that athletes would miss an entire class period of either fourth or seventh period, twice a week during the season. Not to mention our multi-season athletes.” 

Gunn parent and bell schedule committee member Heidi Volkmar also spoke during the open forum.

“I know all the intricacies — from being on the bell committee — that go into that schedule,” Volkmar said. “But one thing that you have in your control that you can do though, as board members and the superintendent, is you can change the start time back to 8:30 … 8:30 is enough time for students to get that extra sleep.”

Gunn Student Board Representative Thomas Li urged the board to reconvene with bell schedule committee members, citing concerns about ending at 4 p.m. like the later end time preventing students from working after school jobs or caring for younger siblings whose schools in the district end at earlier times.

“I’m absolutely positive that the teachers, the parents, the students and everyone else on the committee would be willing to reconvene if it means that they can speak freely about the concerns regarding later start times,” Li said. “If this is going to be the bell schedule for the foreseeable future, let’s get this done right.”

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.”

Los Altos Councilwoman Lee Eng denies falsely accusing activist Kenan Moos for first time publicly

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

Amid persistent calls for her resignation and a failed attempt at mediation, Los Altos Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng at a council meeting on April 27 denied allegations that she falsely claimed Los Altos activist Kenan Moos threatened her, addressing the allegations directly for the first time since the incident took place.

Lee Eng’s alleged false accusations came after she abstained from a police reform vote in November 2020. Following the vote, she claimed that she had received messages calling her racist from the social justice group Justice Vanguard, which Moos founded.

“I’m getting information or comments from members of Vanguard calling me racist now,” Lee Eng said after the vote. “I don’t appreciate it. I would like to state that I did it because I lacked information, and there were other reasons why I took the position that I have.”

“I voted the way I did, I am representing my concerns due to the lack of information,” she added. “That said, I just want to protect myself and protect my family.”

In the weeks following the incident, it became clear that the only messages sent were from Moos, expressing his disappointment.

“Your name will be all over the papers,” Moos wrote to Lee Eng in the November text. “We know there are racists that supported you. You are trying to delay this. It has nothing to do with budget and you know this. You lied to me in our discussions that you were going to support racial matters. You said you were the only one in favor and it looks like you are the only one against them.” 

After Lee Eng publicly accused members of Justice Vanguard, Moos sent a message clarifying his position.

“I just want to be clear,” Moos wrote. “This is no way a threat of any kind. This is me expressing my disappointment.”

Many members of the public and council interpreted Lee Eng’s statement in the November meeting to mean that she felt threatened — Lee Eng denied that she implied that.

“I wanted to explain my vote in order to protect myself and my family after receiving text messages saying that my supporters were racist and promising that my name would be all over the papers,” Lee Eng said at this week’s council meeting. “I am the only female Asian ever elected to serve on the Los Altos City Council. Kenan Moos, his family and his supporters exploited the false narrative that I said he threatened me and that I considered texts he sent to me as threats because he is a young Black man. That is absolutely false.”

Moments after Lee Eng initially accused Moos of threatening her in November, the council immediately condemned it, and have not commented on the accusation or the threat itself since. 

Mayor Neysa Fligor ended that silence in a prepared statement at this week’s meeting, apologizing for the hurt the council may have done, and acknowledging that she thought Lee Eng implied a threat was made.

“Although she did not use the word threat, when we all heard her saying that she wanted to make a statement [in case] anything happened to her family, I [took it to mean] something very serious and scary was written in that text message,” Fligor said.

Fligor, echoed by councilmembers Jonathan Weinberg and Sally Meadows, expressed that she did not view the text messages as threatening.

“I did not see anything in the message that would make me believe that something would happen to Councilmember Lee Eng and her family,” Fligor said.

During the public comment section of the meeting, residents who empathized with Moos, as well as his family members spoke out against Lee Eng.

“All you are doing is denying. Denying, denying, denying, that is not what a great leader does, you can’t keep denying, you can’t keep escaping the truth,” said Kevin Moos, father of Kenan Moos after Lee Eng delivered her statement. “You waited five months, let everyone think [Kenan] sent threatening messages. For five months. You are cold hearted, you are a horrible example as a leader.”

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.”

Pasallo, Bissonnette tapped for new MVLA district office roles

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Haz click aqui para ver el articulo en Español.

Los Altos High School English teacher Michelle Bissonnette and Assistant Principal Perla Pasallo have been appointed to new roles in the district office: Pasallo will serve as the director of student services and equity, while Bissonnette will take on the role of community outreach specialist.

Both are new positions that fall under a larger district reorganization approved by the board of trustees last night.

Bissonnette — a vetern educator who, with the exception of two years working in the Department of Education, has taught English at Los Altos since 1998 — will broadly be responsible for communicating with and gathering feedback from the community to inform policy across the district.

“Being a teacher is truly something that I’ve done for so long that I will always feel it is part of my identity,” Bissonnette said in an email interview. “The reason I am willing to step away from the classroom is because I believe this role will simply be an extension of my ability to help students and families — it will help the district to build its capacity to be more responsive to the needs of our students, and that is why we are all here!”

A district description of Bissonnette’s new position also emphasizes her role in supporting the superintendent in the “emphasis on student voice toward district improvement.”

“I think that if at the end of my time in this role I could say that I helped families feel like their voices and experiences were valued and honored, and that I helped build the capacity of the district to improve life outcomes for all of our students, I’d feel like I had spent my time well,” Bissonnette said. “I know that’s not super specific, it’s more aspirational. But it’s what I do hope for.”

Pasallo will be responsible for supporting and guiding the district’s English learner programs, special education department and equity initiatives; a particularly important role as the district implements its early intervening services plan to address the disproportionate identification of Latino students for special education, as noted by Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer.

She’ll report directly to Teri Faught, the similarly recently appointed associate superintendent of educational services.

“I want to help create and implement programs that will support all students [in achieving] their academic goals,” Pasallo said in an email interview. “Especially students who have struggled and experience challenges in achievement. Since my focus is around academic counseling, second language learners and critical learners, all of my goals revolve around identifying ways to support those groups and promoting equity for our students of color.”

Pasallo started her relationship with the district as a therapist and case manager at Alta Vista High School in 1997, becoming a counselor and later department coordinator at Los Altos five years later.

She began her current role as assistant principal in 2010.

“The pro [of taking this new role] was having the opportunity to promote change that will promote academic achievement for students and narrow the opportunity gap,” Pasallo said. “The true difficulty was the thought of leaving my Los Altos family and amazing administrative team.”

A week in, here’s what students have to say about MVLA’s hybrid return

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ALLISON HUANG

Haz click aqui para ver el articulo en Español.

Students in the Mountain View–Los Altos Union High School District returned to campus this week for hybrid instruction, the culmination of months of planning, negotiation and often contentious debate.

For Los Altos freshman Katie Skaggs, it wasn’t so much a “return,” but instead a first day of school — she’s never been on campus for in-person instruction before.

“It was a bit weird,” she said. “I was nervous going into it, like I think most people are on their first day of school. But the 20 minute passing periods are nice because I don’t have to stress about getting from one class to another, and I think I’ve kind of gotten the hang of where my classes are, which is helpful.”

The district’s hybrid schedule sets passing periods at 20 minutes — as opposed to the typical five — in part to allow for cleaning in rooms as the over 2,000 students participating in in-person instruction district-wide (about half the student body) shuffle through the day.

In-person and remote students attend the same classes over Zoom, meaning that in theory, whole-class lectures would be similar to distance learning, the only difference being that half the class is sitting in the classroom while the other half sits at home.

A week in, Skaggs said that while the quality of the hybrid instruction might not be remarkably better than it is in distance learning, it does have its merits.

“The teachers are actually in front of you … it’s harder to get distracted,” she said. “You kind of have to stay focused, which is helpful in a way.”

Skaggs also said that being in the classroom especially makes a difference when doing work in groups.

“With small group discussions in breakout rooms, none of the people talk to you and they just ignore you,” she said. “But now we’re able to have face-to-face conversations and I think that’s very helpful. I learn better with a face in front of me, not just some computer screen.”

Social interaction — something that community members have long cited as an argument for broader in-person opportunities — is also one of Skaggs’ pros of attending school in-person.

While she said that she sees some close friends outside of school about once a week, she contended that it’s “different” seeing people at school. 

“I see people that I haven’t seen since March of last year,” Skaggs said. “Or the people that were a year older than me when I was in seventh grade at Egan, I see them for the first time in like two years. Then the people that I went to elementary school with who I haven’t seen in four years.”

As for COVID-19 safety precautions — which primarily consist of 3-foot social distancing and masking — Skaggs said that although she ultimately felt comfortable, she thinks that social distancing during breaks could have been stressed more.

“I don’t think they’ve done the best at social distancing, but me and [my friend] … whenever we see a big group of people we kind of try to find our own area,” she said. “During brunch there’s very little social distancing.”

She added that social distancing in classrooms is always enforced and that masking is a non-issue — and again stressed that she ultimately felt comfortable because she had the freedom to remove herself from situations where she didn’t, a sentiment which she guessed that most of her peers shared.

As for major downsides to being in-person, Skaggs had relatively minor gripes (although “minor” may depend on who you ask).

“Not being able to leave the Zoom early is really the only thing,” she said. “And actually having to speak in Spanish class.”

Mountain View junior Ella Blatnik said that although her experience has ultimately been positive so far, her return wasn’t necessarily smooth-sailing. 

“It was a little overwhelming,” Blatnik said. “Before [I went] I was overwhelmed about having to see people and having all the technical difficulties. But when I got there it was like ‘Oh I feel awkward just sitting there, I feel like I have to have a conversation.’ I don’t know … different things came up that were just awkward.”

But like Skaggs, she said that she enjoyed seeing not only her friends and classmates, but being able to catch up with acquaintances and people that she’s “not that close to” for the first time in over a year walking through the hallways.

Blatnik, who had initially participated in then dropped out of the district’s “stable groups,” said she finds the hybrid model far more engaging because more of her classmates returned to campus and she’s able to shuffle through classrooms as she normally would. Plus, it’s far easier to stay engaged with her teachers in the classroom with her.

She said she sensed a bit of initial awkwardness as teachers struggled to present to both students in the classroom and at home, but felt it turned out fine.

“I think because it’s more of a natural tendency to want to pay attention to the people in-person, a lot of teachers intentionally focused on the Zoom to kind of fight that natural instinct,” she said. “But in the end that kind of all balanced out.”

Blatnik did note the school’s internet problems, citing the third period outage on Thursday. 

Bob Fishtrom, director of information technology services, said that the district-wide outage stemmed not from the district’s networks but from a Comcast outage — a “very, very rare” occurrence. 

“I was at Los Altos this morning and was in a classroom, about 10 kids were there,” he said. “I asked how the WiFi was and they said it has never been better. Let’s hope this pattern continues.”

Blatnik, for her part, was good-natured about it.

“It was difficult, but also not too bad because … we’re all suffering at the same time,” she said. “So if we get kicked out of the Zoom meeting at the same time, at least we’re all kicked out.”

Los Altos junior Trinity Bang, who elected to remain in distance learning in order to spend more time with her family, said that the school’s internet outage affected her even at home.

“My third period was basically me trying to figure out what was going on,” she said. “I had math at that time and I was paired with a partner and sent to a breakout room, but neither of us knew what was going on … That was a really confusing experience for the people at home.”

Other than that brief blip, Bang said that in terms of educational experience, this past week has been about the same for her as distance learning has been all year.

But she did make a point of noting that she felt a certain “disconnect” with the students in the classroom, in part for social reasons but also bare logistics. 

“In a couple of my classes, [in-person] students haven’t been logging onto Zoom, so when they talk in class or they make a contribution to the conversation I can’t really hear or understand them,” she said. “I don’t know if I would say my learning … experience has been worse this past week, but I definitely feel more disconnection with my peers than I have this past year because I can’t hear them really or build off their ideas.”

Skaggs, who was in-person, said that in the majority of her classes she was required to log onto Zoom with her remote peers, but some teachers had microphones in the classroom and told in-person students to speak up so remote classmates could hear.

Los Altos senior Jimmy Gao said that interacting with in-person students hasn’t been a problem in any of his classes, and that other than the school’s internet outage, nothing’s changed for him this week. 

“I mean the only difference is that the teacher is presenting to a live audience,” he said. “What she says to the class is just normally what would have been.”

He also said that with AP tests on the horizon, many of his teachers have transitioned into more review-type lessons instead of teaching new content, which may contribute in part to the relative sameness. 

Gao, who’s apparently been afflicted with a particularly bad case of senioritis, said that he opted to remain at home because he “just didn’t think it was worth it.”

“It’s going to make slacking off a lot harder,” he said, likely speaking for many fellow senioritis victims. “You have to stay awake because the teacher’s always eyeballing you.”

Gao said that another consideration was that he already sees friends outside of school, so social interaction wasn’t a huge pull factor for him.

On the other hand, Skaggs, perhaps because she still has another three years before the expected onset of senioritis, is looking forward to next week when in-person students stay on campus for the whole day rather than the half-day rotations of the past week (she said that it’ll be weird to have to start packing lunch for school again).

She also expressed optimism that any first-week kinks will be ironed out given time, as students and teachers adjust to the hybrid model.

“I think it was good for me to go and get some type of freshman year,” she said. “It wasn’t what I expected, but it’s something.”

Carly Heltzel contributed to the reporting on this story.

PAUSD to allow secondary students on campus four days a week

STORY BY MELODY XU, PHOTO BY TOMOKI CHIEN

Palo Alto Unified School District secondary students will have the option to attend school on campus for four days a week starting Tuesday, April 27.

The district’s in-person learning model — dubbed “Zoom in a Room” — puts students in the same classroom as teachers and peers, while still tuning into class through the same Zoom meetings as those who opt to learn remotely.

Since the optional return for grades 7–12 began, students have been split up into two groups alphabetically by last name, with each group having the choice of going to campus on two designated school days: either Tuesday and Wednesday, or Thursday and Friday.

This latest update, sent out in Friday’s Paly Community Update, follows district families indicating interest in having the option to go to campus Tuesday–Friday, in a recent survey. 

More drama: Mediation between Los Altos Councilwoman Lee Eng and activist Kenan Moos terminated

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTO BY EMILY MCNALLY

Following five months of controversy surrounding comments made by Los Altos Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng about activist Kenan Moos, an attempt at mediation — something which many hoped would bring peace to the issue — was terminated by the mediator, whose identity is currently confidential.

At a council meeting in November, Lee Eng falsely accused Moos of threatening her family, following a vote on police reform measures

Since then, Moos has called for Lee Eng’s resignation, and his calls have been joined by dozens of other Los Altos residents at recent council meetings.

“The city was informed yesterday that the agreed upon mediator had terminated the process,” said Mayor Neysa Fligor at a city council meeting this week. “The reason for termination was not disclosed to the city. Although we are very disappointed in this particular process, we are still hopeful that both parties can resolve this matter.”

Moos said that his relationship with Lee Eng was amicable prior to that November meeting. Lee Eng even claimed to have attended a Black Lives Matter march organized by Moos last June, but he said he has no recollection of meeting her there.

“This is not the first time someone has criminalized me,”  Moos said in an interview. “All the stuff I do has been diminished because she applies the label of a ‘scary black man.’ I literally have to humanize myself to others now.”

Although the events that occurred during mediation are confidential, it is unusual for a mediation between two parties to be terminated. If a mediation is terminated by a mediator, it is often due to a perception that one party involved is not there in good faith, or that the mediation can not be productive.

“One person has been very open on speaking this whole time, and has stood on the policy of conversation, and that’s me,” Moos said. “I have said let’s talk. It’s been five months, and not a single word has been said. I’m not saying who necessarily ended it, because technically it was ended by the mediator. But there are few reasons mediation gets terminated. Just look at everything that’s happened.”

During nearly all public comments calling on Lee Eng to apologize or resign over the past five months, many have accused her of failing to look up at her computer screen on Zoom — something which they say shows that she’s not listening.

“It has proven to be a very difficult year for him, and this has made it even more so,” said Toni Moos, mother of Kenan Moos, failing to hold back tears during the meeting. “Lynette, please look at the camera. It is time to apologize for making my son a target, for allowing the hatred that he is encountering. Look up Lynette! Please!”

Lee Eng did not reply to multiple requests for comment.