Santa Clara County public health leaders are no longer requiring schools to wait to reopen five days after the county has moved into the less restrictive red tier of COVID-19 cases, meaning local campuses could open sooner than expected.
Palo Alto Unified Superintendent Don Austin said at Tuesday's school board meeting that the county communicated the change to school district leaders earlier that day. County officials said that if public health conditions continue to improve, the county could qualify for the red tier as soon as next Wednesday, March 3, Austin said.
If that's the case, seventh through 12th graders could be back on campuses by Tuesday, March 9. Teachers would be asked to come back to their classrooms on March 4 and 5 to prepare, and Monday, March 8, remains an asynchronous day in the middle and high school schedules.
Under the district's plan, students who opt in will not be receiving direct instruction but rather attending Zoom classes in classrooms with small groups of peers and a teacher. Students will be divided into two groups and assigned two days a week to be on campus. They will likely be tested regularly for COVID-19, an expansion of the district's current testing scope that the board didn't oppose on Tuesday.
Early surveys indicate that about half of high school students are interested in returning in person, Austin said. The district is also giving them flexibility — if a student decides he or she no longer wants to be on campus, or wants to shift from being at home, they can do so. Some Palo Alto High School students indicated in a survey that they plan to see how the reopening goes the first week and then decide if they want to come back, Austin said.
Santa Clara County also announced a new reopening "caveat" on Tuesday, Austin said. Once the county moves into the red tier, schools have a three-week window to reopen. If they don't open within those three weeks and the county returns to the purple tier, they can no longer resume in-person instruction. But schools that have reopened while in the red tier can stay open, he said.
"The rules are hard to follow and look like they conflict but that is the most accurate information we have today about our reopening and practically speaking, pretty much in alignment with the pace we were looking at for bringing students back," Austin said.
Sixth grade students, who are considered separate from the secondary schools under state guidelines, are still set to return for hybrid learning next Tuesday, March 2. Austin said all sixth grade classrooms have been properly prepared for health and safety precautions and are "ready to go."
Medha Atla, Paly's school board representative, said she went back to campus for the first time last week to be part of one of the district's new high school cohorts. When the district first asked students in the winter if they wanted to return for a possible hybrid learning model, she initially stuck with distance learning.
"But I just hit a point where I couldn't take it anymore. It's been a whole year" of remote learning, the high school senior said.
She's now in a cohort with five students who have their own group chat and are able to safely socialize during breaks and lunch — a breath of fresh air, she said, after learning in isolation from home for so long.
"It's not a lot but it's those little things that for me have made a big difference," Atla said.
San Mateo County moved to the red tier effective Wednesday, which means all schools can reopen fully for in-person instruction, but the decision is up to local or county officials.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.