UPDATE: On July 29, the school board approved a contract with Stride Learning Solutions to provide distance learning services. Read the full story.
Palo Alto Unified students who don't feel comfortable returning to the classroom this fall will be allowed to learn remotely, but they won't be taught by any teachers from the school district.
Superintendent Don Austin said the district is turning to a third-party education service this school year to fulfill the state's requirement to offer an "independent study program."
"With three weeks left (until the start of school), we're not going to create an entire new … school program for distant learning," Austin told this news organization. "You just can't. So we're looking at third-party vendors."
Passed into law on July 9, the state requires that every public school district offer a remote learning option to students who might fear medical risks of being inside the classroom and the requirements of the program go well beyond the state's earlier independent study protocols: Student-to-teacher ratios have to be equal to the in-person ratio; access to Wi-Fi must be made available; qualifying students have to be provided free or reduced-price meals; and students must be able to transition to in-person classes if they choose to do so, among other criteria.
But what's not dictated is who must teach the remote classes.
On Thursday, Palo Alto's Board of Education will meet for a special meeting to approve a contract with Stride Learning Solutions, which provides customized online curriculum for K-12 students. With Stride, students will have asynchronous and synchronous instruction with a teacher from the company's online faculty.
Austin said the district sees the new program as an opportunity to provide an alternative to families whose children feel at risk or who can't wear a mask.
It "is for anyone that feels their health is at risk, and there's no criteria beyond that," Austin said. "There is no preexisting health condition requirement; there's no documentation of health issues requirement; and now, although I don't believe it's written in the guidelines, if somebody is opposed to wearing a mask, that can be a reason."
If the contract with Stride is approved on Thursday, the service will cost the district around $3,000 per student or $1.8 million for the school year, assuming a 6% student enrollment rate into the program, according to the board meeting agenda. As of July 22, roughly 400 students in the district had requested a remote learning option in a recent nonbinding districtwide survey, Austin said.
"It's not a small number," he said.
Students who participate in the program will not only get a different learning experience from outside the district, but also won't be able to participate in their school's extracurricular activities, according to Austin.
"It doesn't make sense to be unable to attend school, yet have no problem participating with less restrictions and protections in extracurricular activities," Austin said. "This will be our stance entering the fall."
Thursday's meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda at go.boarddocs.com. Those wishing to participate by Zoom can do so by going to pausd.zoom.us/j/95316184997 or dialing 669-900-6833 and using Meeting ID: 953 1618 4997.