Palo Alto high schools reopen for virtual learning, bring high-need students back to campus

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“I believe students belong in schools,” Palo Alto Schools Unified District Superintendent Don Austin said in an interview with The Daily. “There’s nothing sadder than an empty campus, and we’re going to get past it. We’ll get there. Our plan is to go as fast as we can but as slow as we need to.”

At Palo Alto High School, approximately 14 students are learning on campus with the remaining students learning from their homes. As of now, the students who have returned are part of PAUSD+ Student Support Center, a program that provides a safe community learning space with internet access, meals and resources to students at higher risk for poor learning outcomes. On Sept. 14, athletes also returned to campus for outdoor team workouts. In the coming weeks, the schools plan to bring back special-education students. 

Currently, returning students are following PAUSD protocol that requires students on campus to be divided into 14-person cohorts. These small pods of students remain together under the supervision of a faculty member throughout the school day. The plan, announced Sept. 4, aims to minimize contact between students to contain the possible spread of COVID-19. Austin said that this decision followed weeks of discussion with community members as well as with Stanford University administration.

“While it wasn’t a requirement that we were in lockstep with Stanford, I can say it was affirming that we ended up in the same place,” Austin said. “We were really able to learn from each other and see here are some places where we are similar, here are some places where we are different, just figuring out the best way to move forward in the best interest of the community.”

The return of high school students to campus and the implementation of a hybrid learning model under the District’s reopening plan is currently slated for Jan. 7, provided that Santa Clara County meets the requirements to reopen. According to state guidelines, once a county has been in the red, or “substantial” tier for at least two weeks, schools are permitted to open for in-person instruction. By maintaining case rates below 7%, the county has been in the red tier since Sept. 8. Austin said that schools are now looking to facilitate a smooth transition over the coming months by gradually bringing more groups of students to campus.

Laura Malagrino, a senior at Palo Alto High School learning from home, said that “[schools] don’t really have much of a need to open right now,” and that she thinks the school district is making the right call by utilizing a phased approach to reopening.

“I don’t know if being in person would be any better, because if you do social distancing and you’re all wearing your masks and you obviously can’t get close to each other and you’re just watching a teacher do a lecture, I’m not sure if the benefits outweigh the risks of going in person,” Malagrino said.

The school district plans to move forward with the reintegration of progressively more students in accordance with state and county guidelines. In addition to welcoming back most of their students virtually, PAUSD high schools have also moved to synchronous learning, a change that Malagrino said was “definitely the right call.”

“In March, [school] was basically all optional, and teachers couldn’t require students to be on Zoom,” Malagrino said. “Now, there’s an actual schedule. You wake up, you get dressed, and you go to school, but school’s at your desk.”

Currently, PAUSD high schools are dealing with backlash in response to a schedule in which students are required to attend all seven of their classes for half an hour from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Monday. Throughout the rest of the week, students attend three to four 75-minute class sessions that alternate based on their period.

“There’s not much that teachers can go through in 30 minutes,” Malagrino said. “Being on Zoom with seven classes for an entire day is really draining for a lot of students.” 

At the most recent PAUSD board meeting on Tuesday, several students expressed their support for a change to the current Monday schedule. PAUSD teacher Korynne Headley agreed with the students’ sentiments, saying, “I support our students who are advocating tonight for an asynchronous Monday.”

In response, Palo Alto High School Principal Brent Kline collected a “survey of student opinions” and plans to respond to feedback to promote a healthy discourse between students and administration at the school. He added that the administration is looking for ways to improve the student experience through virtual learning, but that overall he is impressed with the commitment of the student community.

“Initially, the opening went even better than I imagined,” Kline said. “A lot of that is the preparation that all our teachers did during the summer where they went through a series of online modules that were focusing on instructional practices for distance learning. But we’re always working through it, and it’s a lot of taking feedback both from teachers and students on what’s going on and making adjustments as we go forward.”

Contact Tammer Bagdasarian at tbag ‘at’ stanford.edu and Benjamin Zaidel at bzaidel ‘at’ stanford.edu

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