With plans constantly changing for the academic year this fall, and poor experiences with distance learning during the spring still on the minds of students, families and educators, the Weekly asked Palo Altans to share their concerns, questions and hopes about the upcoming school year for the Palo Alto Unified School District. Here's what they had to say. (Interviews were edited for brevity.)
Mudita Jain, parent
My biggest fear is that without a commitment to online, synchronous learning, the equity gap in our district will become wider, because the students who will lose out the most are the ones most affected by not having access to free, challenging, quality public education.
In thinking about reopening schools, the district should address:
• What are the barriers to providing synchronous instruction, and why can San Jose Unified School District, San Mateo Union High School District and Dublin Unified overcome those barriers and not us?
• How can we provide rigorous, challenging instruction for all students while making sure students in need (due to economic, academic or medical fragility reasons) aren't left behind?
• How can we give students opportunities to engage with their peers, for their emotional/mental health? Not all students are interested in a sport.
• What can the district do about classes that need to be in person, for example, ceramics or robotics?
(My biggest hope is) that the district would require all PAUSD middle and high school courses to be livestreamed and available for replay to students, even if in-person instruction is resumed. This would allow medically fragile students to participate in the course with their peers while at home, and if a hybrid model was in place, to transmit instruction from the in-person classroom to students mandated to stay at home three days a week.
Live synchronous instruction allows students to engage in discussion with teachers and each other, allowing them to learn from multiple sources. It also most closely imitates in person instruction while still being safe for students and teachers. Being able to replay a lecture is important for equity because students with spotty internet connections should not miss out on instruction.
In addition, I hope that there would be a plan to have students engage in fun activities, even if online.
Medha Atla, rising senior at Palo Alto High, student board representative for Associated Student Body
As a student, obviously, I know that I wanted to be back on campus this senior year — my final year as a Palo Alto Unified School District student. So I would like to enjoy being able to see my friends and see my teachers and learn on campus, but obviously health and safety comes first. And I understand the superintendent's decision to do online reopening.
I'm a little worried about college applications and not being able to have access to my college counselor or my advisors or my teachers if I need help with college applications.
But I think it's going to be different from the online learning system that we had in place, March through June. I think this time, there's going to be a lot more structure and I think that will help a lot.
I hope that even though we're online (this fall) and we don't have that in-person experience, I will still be able to connect with my peers, and not just academically, like being able to work in groups, but also, socially. I'm an only child, so have no siblings, and I can't meet my friends right now.
I hope that there'll be a way to connect online, whether it's by giving breakout rooms or something like that.
Usually I feel that when you're in school, you automatically connect with your teachers because you see them face-to-face, and I hope I can still do that even if it's online, and I still feel comfortable going to them.
Meb Steiner, president of the California School Employees Association
My short way of sort of summarizing our approach to this is ... our working environment is the same thing and is equal to the students' learning environment ... and we need to keep both of those safe.
That's really the biggest concern right now around reopening: How do we do it in a well-planned, thoughtful rollout because it's a lot of stuff to do. It's just a huge endeavor and a very complex thing. To do it well requires a lot of planning, a lot of details, and it's a big risk because we are fundamentally trying to reopen a small city.
The lingering question is really having a very, very detailed plan of what our safety protocols are going to be. I think that it's really important that we put them on our website and they're available for anybody and everyone to access. Students would know what the expectations are, the staff would know, our community members would know, and we would all kind of be on the same page of: this is what we're doing; this is how we're going about it.
Some things I know have been put in place. We have bought personal protective equipment, we've got some cleaning protocols — the custodians have been cleaning all summer. Our maintenance and operations folks have been checking the ventilation systems to see which buildings need more ... and making sure that buildings and facilities are safe.
But there's just a lot of moving parts.
On a district level, what I'd really appreciate is that we have open lines of communication with district leadership, with the school board, and with the stakeholders. I think that is something that is a real positive and allows us to collectively work together to make sure that we keep our students, our staff and our community safe. So that's our hope.
Teri Baldwin, president of the Palo Alto Educators Association
(My biggest concerns are) the health and safety of our students, educators, families and the community. Before schools eventually reopen, we expect to see robust and practicable safety measures and protocols. At the county and state level, we're trying to understand the new guidance that could possibly allow schools, once open, to stay open even with dozens of positive cases.
It's (been) exhausting for all of us (educators, families, administrators) ... being bombarded with new information, sometimes confusing, sometimes contradictory, sometimes outdated in a matter of days.
And that would be stressful enough if it were only a matter of what our work is going to look like, but again, like everyone, the uncertainty and stress affect our families and loved ones, and the stakes are incredibly high. We really hope to see leaders standing up for the safest options, for the longest reasonable time frame, in order to provide everyone with much-needed reassurances, stability, and the ability to make viable plans.
Going back to school, with all of the PPE (personal protective equipment) and safety measures, will not be anything like school as normal. We anticipate losing instructional time for following and reinforcing all the safety measures, challenges hearing each other with masks and the lists go on.
With our younger students, they have fears about coming to school even in normal circumstances. Teachers can ordinarily comfort those students with a hug and reassuring words. This can't happen in this time of COVID-19.
Andrew Kim, rising senior at Gunn High School, student body president
It's hard. We're missing out on so many school activities, especially homecoming, which is the biggest event at Gunn.
But I agree with the decision to continue with distance learning. Without a clear way to manage and control the spread of the virus, and monitor and isolate those who have the virus, it's gonna be pretty difficult to reopen in the current situation.
I think everybody should have a good understanding and have patience with each other. I try to empathize. (If) students empathize more with the district and the teachers in the district should empathize with the students, it can make the transition a bit easier.
Our student government at Gunn High School, we're figuring out the best ways to keep the school spirit up through a virtual setting. We know for sure big events like homecoming, that require big gatherings, won't happen, but we're thinking we can do some virtual rallies and things.
I know we're having a bit of trouble with clubs right now. That is still not for sure decided yet. I personally think clubs are really important for students, especially during virtual times. We need somewhere that we can go to, somewhere we can find people of similar interests and go to for support. It's hard to just stay at home all day, especially if you don't have that close group.
(College-admissions testing) has been pretty difficult. I'm taking the ACT, and I think next Monday they're opening up for rescheduling. I scheduled an ACT in July, but that one got canceled. I had to schedule one all the way in Yosemite. I was like, "I'm gonna take this trip, just go drive out to Yosemite and get my last ACT done."
And that ended up getting cancelled, so we have to try to find whichever ones are open.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.