The Palo Alto school district announced on Monday more stringent precautions it's taking to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at its schools, including canceling large events and opting out of the state's standardized exam.
But within less than two hours, Superintendent Don Austin backtracked on two major decisions. After "personal consultation" with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan the district will now postpone the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) test until late April through May.
And instead of canceling prom at the two high schools, which he announced on Monday evening, a decision on the April events will be postponed out of a "desire is to find a way to protect a valued tradition without jeopardizing the health and safety of our students," Austin said.
In an initial message Monday evening Austin announced further precautions the district is taking to limit exposure at schools, including canceling all school dances, all field trips and other large school events with more than 100 people. High school athletic events and performances will also be limited to 100 people and "must be held in the largest venues on campus to accommodate guidance on increased social distancing," he wrote. All elementary and middle school performances have been canceled. Parents and visitors will no longer be allowed on campuses during the school day.
These and other changes — a response to updated guidance from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department — are effective Tuesday, March 10, through the end of the school year.
Palo Alto Unified had appeared to be the first school district in California to decide against participating in the state exam in response to the spread of the coronavirus, which is prompting a range of responses at schools, colleges and universities across the state, from intensive cleaning to closing campuses.
Before reversing the decision, Austin said that it was clear the district would not hit the state's required 95% participation rate given lower-than-usual attendance at the elementary schools and would be penalized as a result.
"Given the disruptions we're already going to have with absences and potential closures, it just seemed like an easy place to start eliminating a distraction," Austin said on Monday morning.
By Monday evening, however, he said that the state and county education officials "now fully understand our concerns about maintaining high-level instruction and the potential for low participation rates. They are also aware that any school closures between now and the end of the school year could derail any testing efforts for PAUSD and school districts across California.
"If our conditions stabilize the postponed testing window could provide meaningful data," he said. "This is a rapidly evolving health situation and may take many turns before any potential test is administered."
Austin said Thurmond and Dewan reached out to him together and were concerned about the district taking an "unprecedented" step. They asked and he agreed to instead push the testing back.
A spokesperson for the California Department of Education said that administering the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) is required by federal law and that local school districts "do not have the authority" to opt out of the exam without local, state and federal approval.
"A waiver to not implement the CAASPP may be granted by the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in severe or emergency circumstances," Information Officer Scott Roark said in a statement. "However, a process must be followed."
Districts must provide notice to the public of the need for the waiver and its justification. The district's governing board must then approve the waiver, Roark said, and submit it to the State Board of Education. The state board would consider in a public meeting whether to forward the waiver request to the U.S. Department of Education, which has final decision-making power over the request.
Austin said he was aware of the legal requirements before he made his initial decision.
"It's such a flawed system to start with that it's a pretty small leap to go from the fact that any parent can opt out -- Palo Alto already having one of the lowest participation rates in the entire state, and now being faced with the coronavirus emergency situation -- it wasn't a hard decision for me to move forward with the potential of not administering a test that will without question be invalidated this year for low participation rates across the entire state," he said.
Gunn High School juniors were set to take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress next week, Palo Alto High juniors at the end of the month and students in third through eighth grades after spring break in April. Palo Alto Unified will still administer Advanced Placement exams for high school students given the tests are optional and "spacing guidelines can be easily accommodated," the district said.
Attendance is down at Palo Alto elementary schools but remains "steady" at the secondary schools, Austin said.
Last year, the district saw 93% overall participation on the state test, though both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools have struggled to meet the required participation threshold for several years. Administrators have made a concerted effort to communicate the importance of the test — comparing not only students' progress but also the district's to other districts' in the state — with high school students and parents.
The district notified Gov. Gavin Newsom's office of its decision on Monday morning.
Austin said he consulted with other superintendents and the Association of California School Administrators in making this decision.
"Every superintendent thought it was exactly what we should be doing," he said Monday morning.
In an interview on Monday evening, Austin said he quickly heard from students "expressing their disappointment" about losing prom, which led him to "believe that maybe there's an answer in there hat hadn't been considered.
"This does not mean prom is back on," he said. "This means we're going to be in a very short timeline ... for both schools to brainstorm and think about if there's a solution that they would like to propose that can also match the county guidelines."
He expected to have a decision set on prom by the end of this week.
"We're going to have a lot of disappointment around decisions that we had to make and we understand that. But if there's a way to save prom, I'm all in," Austin said.
Starting Tuesday, the schools will no longer have group assemblies with more than 100 people. Professional learning, parent education events, school open houses, a district career fair and staff leadership institute have all been canceled.
Parents with questions about participating in activities at their children's schools should contact their principals.
Outside rentals of district facilities will also be canceled until the end of the school year, with exceptions made on a case by case basis for groups that serve only district students.
Senior week events, graduations and summer school will proceed as planned; "however, these events may be canceled given the dynamic and rapidly evolving situation," Austin wrote.
The Santa Clara County Public Health Department is currently not recommending closing schools and people under 18 years old continue to be at low risk for the coronavirus, Austin noted.
"If a staff member or student in a specific school is confirmed to have COVID-19, the superintendent and local public health officials will consider, based on the specific facts and circumstances of that case, whether closure of that school is warranted," he wrote. "Should the Public Health Department determine a school closure is warranted, the duration is likely to be the length of time needed to conduct cleaning protocols and determine readmission criteria."
In the event of a school closure, the district would suspend all instructional and extracurricular activities.
"The rapid development of COVID-19 has created significant challenges and stresses for our district family. The 24-hour news and social media cycles have contributed to our collective stress and worry," Austin wrote. "Things are changing by the day. The district will make all attempts to keep you informed and updated."
Two weeks ago, the district sent home two students whose parent was exposed to the coronavirus. Austin has declined to state whether the two students have been tested for the coronavirus, citing their privacy, but said that the district was following direction from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
The K-8 Ravenswood City School District, whose schools are in East Palo Alto and east Menlo Park, announced on Monday that field trips have been canceled for the month and that nonessential volunteer programs coming into classrooms have been suspended until further notice "to adhere to the recommendation and to keep the well-being of volunteers who may be in higher risk groups for COVID-19 in mind," interim Superintendent Gina Sudaria wrote to staff and families. The district will make decisions about later events by the beginning of April, she said.
She noted that if a Ravenswood school or schools were to close, it would be at the direction of San Mateo County Health in consultation with the county office of education.
"This is new territory for us and every other school district in our county, and we are already looking into what it might entail," Sudaria wrote.
The California Department of Public Health released over the weekend new guidelines for how districts, colleges and universities should prepare for the potential spread of the coronavirus, including the possibility of school closures.
Also on Monday, in the wake of Santa Clara County's first coronavirus death and a rising number of confirmed cases, the county issued a mandatory ban of all events of 1,000 people or more starting this Wednesday, March 11, at midnight. County officials "strongly urge postponing or canceling gatherings and community events where large numbers of people are within arm's length of one another."
Read our latest updates on local coronavirus cases here.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.