The library was dark, the cafeteria was closed and the hallways were eerily quiet, but it was still back to school in person last week for small groups of Palo Alto Unified School District students.
The school district reopened some campuses for the first time since March to serve students who have been identified as struggling academically or needing quiet, supportive places to learn, as well as some students with disabilities.
In one Fletcher Middle School classroom, five students sat quietly at socially distanced desks on computers with masks and headphones on. Before entering the classroom, each of them had lined up to be screened by a nurse who asked if they live with or have had contact with anyone who's tested positive for the coronavirus or if they've had symptoms themselves. Instead of back-to-school-night flyers, QR codes for health screenings were posted at the front office.
The students are provided with breakfast, which they eat outside with their cohorts at picnic tables and benches marked with blue tape to remind them to keep 6 feet apart. The hallways are decorated with illustrated handwashing reminders and the water fountains are wrapped in plastic.
As part of the district's new PAUSD+ program for high-need students, each middle and high school campus is housing one or two cohorts, with no more than two supervising adults for each group. Fletcher, for example, is currently serving 15 middle school students in two cohorts. Out of the 91 students who the district invited to participate in PAUSD+, 33 attended on the first day, according to the district. By the end of the week there were 44 students enrolled, with more to be added soon, according to the district.
Though the program only started this week, teachers already said they're seeing some students that they hadn't regularly seen when school started in late August, Fletcher Principal Melissa Howell said.
"We heard from teachers that participation has increased," she said. "That was our ultimate goal."
Schools that are not yet allowed to fully reopen given local public health conditions are now permitted to serve small groups of students in person. In late August, the California Department of Public Health issued guidance permitting schools to reopen to serve students with "acute" needs, including students with disabilities, English learners, students at higher risk of further learning loss or not participating in distance learning, students at risk of abuse or neglect, foster youth and students who are homeless.
Across town at Cubberley Community Center, another classroom was back in action on Friday morning. Four adult students in the district's Futures program for postsecondary students with moderate to severe disabilities worked on a range of vocational and tactile activities, with masked aides guiding them. (Three of the four students wore masks.)
Sydney Abraha, who is blind, worked on separating pom-poms from erasers, sitting under a large, red poster board that was created for her during distance learning. The board is divided into three sections — places, activities and people — with felt cutouts decorated with objects to communicate and guide her day, such as lunch (the top of a plastic fork) and Zoom class (a raised "Z"). She was nearing the lunch hour when she'd make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for herself in a temporary kitchen at Cubberley.
On the other side of the classroom, another student, Joshua Van Riese, was engrossed in putting erasers on pencils and placing the finished products into a container.
They are among the first special-education students to return to school in person since an in-person summer program that had to close early after Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that schools in counties being monitored by the state for high coronavirus metrics couldn't be open in person. Many parents of students with disabilities, worried their children have fallen behind during distance learning, have been clamoring for face-to-face support. Several special education teachers, meanwhile, urged the school board this week to take a more cautious, "conservative" approach, citing their concerns about the health and safety risks.
"It's best for them to be back," Futures teacher Coleman Hall said on Friday. The students, despite often having behavioral issues, have been calm since returning to school this week, he added.
He was busy planning numerous activities that underscore the importance of in-person learning for these students, including grocery shopping, use of public transportation and hiking — all geared toward helping the students become "as independent as possible." Hall said.
There are 21 postsecondary students now attending school in person, according to the district.
The school district has not yet announced a date for when more special-education students can return in person, but it will be this month, Superintendent Don Austin said. The district is continuing to negotiate working conditions related to special education with the teachers union, with three bargaining sessions in the last week.
All of the in-person programs must adhere to the state Public Health Department's guidelines, including stable cohorts of 14 or fewer students who stay together for all activities and physical distancing "balanced with developmental and socio‐emotional needs of the age group."
Judy Argumedo, the district's director of academic support programs, said she wasn't surprised to hear students were more engaged in online learning while back at their schools in a more structured environment.
"I think physically just being on the campus puts you in the mindset: You walk on the campus and you're expected to be engaged," she said. "School is such a wraparound, protective service that I don't think people in general understood everything that school provides — even the building" itself.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.