It was Sebastian Chancellor's first day of his junior year, and he couldn't stop smiling.
After 10 years of attending Palo Alto public schools, he enrolled last fall in Copenhagen International School in Denmark, where high school classes are taking place in person with few restrictions. It was the first time he'd sat in classrooms next to peers and learned from a teacher face-to-face since Palo Alto schools had closed in March.
"Seeing all these bikes flying by, hearing laughter and smiles, seeing kids running to class, hearing the bell — it was a big nostalgic moment of, 'Wow; I haven't heard this in awhile,'" he said. "I was smiling the whole day. I couldn't help myself. I was so excited to be able to come into a class environment."
The Chancellor family moved from Palo Alto to Copenhagen last August so Sebastian and his younger brother, Oliver, an eighth grader, could attend school in person. They saw the writing on the wall at the end of the summer that the new school year would start fully online in Palo Alto, with no extracurriculars, sports or in-person activities for students, and joined a growing exodus of families who are leaving public schools for places where schools are more fully open. Some are transferring their children to local private schools or home schooling — including a group of 30 families who left Palo Alto Unified to create their own private school in a backyard — while others have moved out of state or even abroad for in-person education.
Public schools across the state are reporting sharp enrollment declines, which have been attributed in part to trends that predated the pandemic, including declining birth rates, but also those born of the pandemic, such as higher dropout rates. California's K-12 public-school enrollment has dropped by a record 155,000 students according to new state projections — about five times more than the state's annual rate of enrollment decline in recent years.
While Palo Alto Unified's fall enrollment was down by about 8%, which district leaders said was relatively normal given historical declines, this year those leaving the district also include families seeking more far-flung opportunities. The district reopened elementary schools for hybrid learning in October and is planning to bring sixth graders back in March, but older students are by and large still learning from home and will likely continue doing so until the fall.
These families' decisions, while temporary, reflect their deep frustration after living with months of stalled reopening decisions, patchy online learning experiences and the toll that the extended school closures are taking on their children. They've decided, for now, that restoring their childrens' love for learning, mental health and sense of normalcy outweigh uprooting their lives and leaving their homes and friends, in some cases even splitting up their families.
In Copenhagen, the Chancellor boys lived the kind of unrestricted life that feels so out of reach for Americans right now. They went to school in person (only wearing masks between classes), played basketball, had sleepovers with friends, attended birthday parties, went to the movies.
The Chancellors spend two weeks every summer in Copenhagen, where Nana Chancellor's family lives, so the transition was smooth. After this summer's annual trip — a breath of fresh air in a country where COVID-19 case rates are low enough that life feels relatively normal — they decided to extend their stay. Within a week, Nana Chancellor had moved with her two sons and enrolled them in the private international school while her husband, Brian, stayed in Palo Alto.
"After months of being isolated, it was a huge relief moving to Copenhagen at the end of August, allowing the boys to live with a sense of normalcy again and enjoying all the regular things kids do — the things we used to take for granted that they had missed terribly during the spring in Palo Alto," Chancellor said. "I wish we were there with schools open, but at the same time, each family has to make tough choices to do what's best for their individual children."
For Sebastian, a social, outgoing, athletic teenager, online learning in Palo Alto last spring was challenging. He had a hard time focusing and connecting with his teachers and classmates. Many peers wouldn't turn their cameras on and kept themselves on mute. He was often left staring at his own reflection on the computer screen for six hours a day. The online school day crawled by, he said.
"I took it for granted, what it's like to be able to go to school and see everybody in person and have a very active classroom environment. I was used to all my life — 'I gotta wake up early for school; why can't I just stay home?' Now it's the other way around," he said. "I want to be at school. The whole narrative was flipped."
In Copenhagen, Sebastian's hour-plus classes flew by. He felt engaged and excited about school again. He also was able to play basketball, crucial for the high school junior who hopes to play in college. Meanwhile, at home in Palo Alto, only small group athletic conditioning has resumed, with restrictions, and it remains to be seen whether the majority of high school sports will have any competitions this school year.
Though COVID-19 rates are much lower in Copenhagen, schools aren't immune to infections. Last semester, Oliver's Danish teacher and two elementary school students at the K-12 school tested positive at different times, though in all three cases, there was no spread to anyone else, Chancellor said. All students and teachers who were exposed stayed home for a week and had to get tested before returning.
"I really wasn't worried about COVID much last semester; I was just incredibly thankful and relieved that my boys could have regular school and sports again," Chancellor said.
Due to family circumstances and hoping for a postponed basketball season, however, Sebastian returned to Palo Alto for his second semester. He's glad to be home but struggled with the transition back to online school — a sharp contrast to the noisy hallways in Copenhagen and his memories of socializing with friends on the quad at Palo Alto High School. Ironically, his younger brother is also back to online school temporarily until Denmark lifts a lockdown implemented after the new COVID-19 variant was discovered there.
Families who have moved abroad are also experiencing drastically different responses to the coronavirus. In Denmark, the public health restrictions are consistent — no school is closed while a neighboring campus is open — and unlike in America, there's little pushback or divisive debate, Chancellor said. There's also a light at the end of the tunnel in Denmark, which is projecting its 5.8 million population will be fully vaccinated by late June.
"Things change here quickly because people trust when the government tells them, 'This is what we need you to do right now,' and then everyone does it," Chancellor said of Denmark. "It feels a little more like it's something we have to get through together. There's not really finger-pointing."
After 19 years of living and attending public schools in Palo Alto, the Japic family moved to Texas in October for one reason: so their daughters could play sports in person.
They're a serious sports family; the oldest Japic daughter plays Division 1 soccer at Baylor University and the middle child, Sydney, has aspirations to do the same. Sydney has her own website and YouTube page where she posts footage of game highlights and training sessions, hoping to attract the eye of college recruiters. The youngest Japic daughter plays volleyball and basketball.
In the fall, with school still online and no athletic practices or games allowed in Palo Alto, the Japic parents started researching places where soccer was happening in person. They looked at North Carolina, Dallas and Houston. They ultimately bought a second house in Frisco, a Dallas suburb where Sydney earned a spot on a top-tier soccer club team.
"With everything locked down in California, we just couldn't sit by and let things pass without having her opportunity to commit to a D1 school," Caroline Japic said. "Right now the positives in Texas outweigh the positives in California."
Caroline Japic moved with Sydney in October; her husband and younger daughter followed in December. Both parents are able to work remotely from Texas, while the girls are playing sports and attending public schools in person (wearing masks, sitting at desks 6 feet apart and frequently washing their hands). They're "absolutely thriving," Japic said.
Unlike the Chancellors, the Japics don't envision their children returning to Palo Alto Unified. They expect to stay in Texas at least until Sydney graduates from high school in 2022 and perhaps until the youngest daughter graduates in 2026, Japic said. For now, they're enjoying a different kind of lifestyle in Frisco, where the cost of living is lower, there's less traffic and the die-hard Texas football culture portrayed in Friday Night Lights is real.
"In Frisco, the sports and academics are of equal importance," she said. "It's great to have that balance for the kids."
Last month, Kathleen Brizgys Tarlow did something she never thought she would do: She pulled her daughter out of the public school system. She didn't opt to move to another country or even another state, but the significance of the decision still felt monumental to her.
Brizgys Tarlow is a Palo Alto Unified graduate and a supporter of public schools. Until January, her three children — a kindergartener, third grader and sixth grader — attended district schools. Brizgys Tarlow had spent much of the spring and fall calling into virtual school board meetings and advocating for reopening. She was thrilled when her younger two children could partially return to school for hybrid learning in the fall, and said they're thriving after several months of being around their teachers and peers in person. But her sixth-grade daughter continued learning at home on a computer screen, isolated and falling behind as they hoped for a change that would allow middle schools to resume some in-person instruction.
When Superintendent Don Austin sent out a message in January indicating that middle and high schools were unlikely to reopen this school year, something "snapped," Brizgys Tarlow said.
"I feel like she's languishing," she said of her daughter. "The thought of her spending another six months doing the same thing for the remainder of the year was just something I couldn't make peace with."
Brizgys Tarlow decided to transfer her daughter to a local private school, which she declined to name, that's offering in-person classes. Though the district has been constrained from opening further due to local coronavirus rates and restrictions, she couldn't help but feel strung along.
"I'm really sad, and I'm also really angry. I feel like we've been left no other choice," Brizgys Tarlow said.
She said she's sympathetic to teachers who are fearful of returning to work in person, but believes that almost a year into the pandemic, schools are armed with enough information about how to operate safely. Health experts continue to urge schools to reopen as safely as possible, warning about developmental disruptions, learning loss and social isolation. (Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told teachers in a video call this week that all K-8 schools should aim to reopen within the next 100 days.) Brizgys Tarlow is concerned to hear teachers, both locally and across the state, demand that schools remain closed until all educators can be vaccinated.
"If the baseline is total safety then our kids will never go back to school full time," Brizgys Tarlow said. "I believe teachers are essential workers. I don't think kids can learn outside of school — certainly not all kids in an equitable way."
Brizgys Tarlow worries about the long-term consequences of school closures on her children's academic and social-emotional growth, particularly for her daughter, navigating the transition from elementary to middle school. While the school district is hamstrung by public health conditions and state and local restrictions, families are at home, watching more and more milestones pass by: middle school graduation, prom, the first day of high school.
When she's dropping her younger children off at school, she hears from other parents about kids not logging onto Zoom classes and becoming increasingly isolated at home. In her job at Palo Alto nonprofit Grassroots Ecology, which provides free science and nature programs to local teachers, she hears about students in less resourced districts who aren't attending their online classes with little or no parent supervision at home.
"The stories to me just say: There are going to be serious consequences," Brizgys Tarlow said. "I feel like we're acting like this is something that can be deferred forever, but a lot of kids are going to have these enormous learning losses that we're not really reckoning with yet."
Despite the news that sixth graders will be able to return to campuses next month, she doesn't plan to send her daughter back to Palo Alto Unified until schools are open again full time. She said she'll pull her other children as well if daily in-person school doesn't resume in the fall.
"In the past two weeks we've seen a recovery of her spirits," Brizgys Tarlow said of her daughter during this week's virtual school board meeting. "She's doing the difficult academic and social work that kids need to do in school."
Before Elizabeth Lasky moved with her husband and three young children to Norway so their oldest daughter could attend school in person, she watched two possible futures unfold on social media.
Lasky is part of several Facebook groups with names like "Leaving California" and "Life After California," where thousands of members swap advice, post photos in front of moving trucks and new homes and ask questions about the housing market and the guilt of leaving family behind during the pandemic. In local groups, meanwhile, desperate parents launch reopening petitions, compare neighboring districts' plans and furiously debate how to turn the tide on school closures.
Frustrated with distance learning and unwilling to do it again in the fall, the Laskys decided to leave Palo Alto for her husband's native country. They spent $15,000 to move across the globe on two week's notice, timing it exactly so they would be done with a required 10-day quarantine before their daughter's first day of third grade.
Lasky took a picture of her daughter, Bethany Andreassen, on that day. She has a sparkly backpack on and no mask, her eyes squeezed shut she's smiling so big.
"This justifies everything I did to pull off the most manic move of my life," Lasky said.
For the Laskys, life in Norway feels like a big improvement over Palo Alto. Schools are open with some limitations — students don't have to wear masks but learn in stable cohorts and are encouraged to socialize outside of school with the same students to minimize exposure. Gyms are open, a plus for Lasky, who misses her gym buddies at the Palo Alto YMCA, and infection rates are low enough that the constant dread of infection that she lived with in California has evaporated, she said. Rent is cheaper (and includes a lightning-fast half gigabit internet package).
But most importantly, instead of being stuck at home watching TV most of the day or struggling with online classes, Bethany is engaged and learning. And when the country has shut down, elementary schools have been the last to close and the first to reopen, before bars and restaurants.
"I miss America and I do miss my friends in Palo Alto, but right now there's just no reason to be there," Lasky said. "When work is remote and your school is closed, what are you paying rent for? Why pay a premium to live in Palo Alto?"
The Laskys signed a one-year lease on their Norway apartment, so come this August, they will have to decide if they want to stay longer or return to Palo Alto, which will hinge on the state of school reopenings back home. As the pandemic stretches on, she's watched on those Facebook groups as more and more families relocate to places where schools are open.
"Infections rates be damned, they're going to Arizona, they're going to Tennessee, they're going to Kentucky because in 2021, a good school district is one that teaches full time in person," Lasky said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.