News

Palo Alto Unified looks to outsource distance learning for students uncomfortable returning to class

Private vendor would supply lessons, teachers

Palo Alto High School students socially distance while eating lunch on campus on March 10, 2021. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

UPDATE: On July 29, the school board approved a contract with Stride Learning Solutions to provide distance learning services. Read the full story.

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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."

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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.

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Palo Alto Unified looks to outsource distance learning for students uncomfortable returning to class

Private vendor would supply lessons, teachers

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Thu, Jul 29, 2021, 9:10 am
Updated: Fri, Jul 30, 2021, 10:22 am

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.

Comments

cmarg
Registered user
Palo Alto High School
on Jul 29, 2021 at 10:46 am
cmarg, Palo Alto High School
Registered user
on Jul 29, 2021 at 10:46 am

This is a great plan in my opinion. Hopefully it will be a short term program since in person learning is optimal for mental health. I do hope that people do get vaccinated so ideally we can get back to some semblance of normalcy. Clearly those with serious health issues need to be extra cautious.

I just wish there was a way to make sure that those participating are indeed doing it for physical health reasons. Mentally, all should be in person since isolation only triggers mental health challenges, in my opinion.

Thanks PAUSD for coming up with an external organization that can address this until things are calmed down with COVID.


Barron Park dad
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jul 29, 2021 at 11:00 am
Barron Park dad, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jul 29, 2021 at 11:00 am

I seriously wonder what % of PAUSD students will WANT to do this type of independent study program, with non-PAUSD teachers and with no ability to participate in extracurricular activities.


BalancedParent
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jul 29, 2021 at 2:00 pm
BalancedParent, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jul 29, 2021 at 2:00 pm

@Barron Park Dad -- my guess is at least 400 students (per the article). That information was all included in the email with the survey. Most likely it's going to be mostly elementary kids (who cannot be vaccinated yet) as it would be a pretty awful option for MS/HS (most of whom are eligible to be vaccinated). It's not ideal by any means, but it may be what many families need to do.

I think it will also matter on if the decision is binding and for how long? Maybe you choose it till your child can be vaccinated and then they can return to an in-person classroom (perhaps at a different school)?


Meadow
Registered user
Greene Middle School
on Jul 30, 2021 at 12:02 am
Meadow, Greene Middle School
Registered user
on Jul 30, 2021 at 12:02 am

Austin's final remark is mean spirited.

Children will be attending his on-line program at a significantly reduced cost to the school District, making more money available for his preferred on campus students, as well as his own salary. He should be grateful. Instead, he intends to exclude needy students. He pretends to know why students have problems, and understands the severe anxiety many students have from the bullying and exclusion in school for any child who does not fit in his pre-determined box.

PAUSD had 14 months to think about this low cost program, but is only implementing it now 3 weeks before school starts because the law requires it.

PAUSD often tries to use home schooling as a cheap way to get out of a requirement to teach all students. This program will be used as a low cost way to get rid of children who are disabled, have medical needs, and are victims of bullying at Austin's schools resulting in such high anxiety and fear they cannot attend school. His flat out exclusion of these children from everything else says a lot about district leadership, and his true feelings about the disabled and disadvantaged in his district.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 30, 2021 at 6:01 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jul 30, 2021 at 6:01 am

Isn’t Stride just rebranded K12? It does’t get great reviews from homeschoolers. Are they TRYING to just make things worse for remote learners to force them back on campus?

The article makes it seem like CA is supporting independent learning, but the new rules have all but shut down actual independent learning (which the state used to support) in favor of remote “doing school” like Palo Alto has been doing, which is indeed hard on mental health.

SJUSD just had to shut down their >35-year-old home studies program which allowed students the flexibility and support to craft their own educations. It thus served families whose kids did high level sports or arts, who wanted to travel the world, who were gifted but not well served in the schools, had learning disabilities or other special needs not dealt with by the schools, had health problems, needed to work to support family, had very different interests or learning styles, etc. Students could work with an experienced district independent study educator to figure out the best program for them & could take up to two classes & extracurriculars at school, so they got flexibility AND in-person time with friends.

This is a well-funded district with no excuse for such a punitive attitude especially since they’ve had over a year to work out how a positive independent study program could look and haven’t. Our teachers looking to innovate or who themselves need the flexibility would benefit from one too.

I think Austin is afraid of having to create a more innovative permanent IS program going forward and he needn’t be because state rules made it impossible anyway. In person learning isn’t what’s better for mental health, it’s having quality in-person time. That’s where this decision is flat out mean. If someone has health concerns for classroom learning, they would be better off getting some outdoor PE time with friends, or having a class or two that limits their exposure but doesn’t cut them of completely.




ProfvilleResident
Registered user
Professorville
on Jul 31, 2021 at 3:15 pm
ProfvilleResident, Professorville
Registered user
on Jul 31, 2021 at 3:15 pm

@Meadow, could not agree more. I hope every board member reads your comment and reflects deeply -- especially those who have built their political currency on "equity."

Hopefully also they have looked at the full year distance learning yearbook from last year and done some soul-searching about which families were/are the afterthought of the district throughout this pandemic.


The Voice of Palo Alto
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jul 31, 2021 at 4:45 pm
The Voice of Palo Alto, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jul 31, 2021 at 4:45 pm

“Passed into law on July 9, the state requires that every public school district offer a remote learning option”

I wasn’t aware of this law being passed. Thank you to whoever worked on passing this law. I thought all distance learning options were being done with completely in the push to get parents back to work and to restart the economy. Most politicians have been promoting the completely unsafe “return to normal” and “back to school” agenda as if the pandemic is already over. Meanwhile, projection models have the Bay Area hitting peak infections of Delta right when schools are set to open and children under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine. In my opinion, I believe on a national level, once unvaccinated kids begin to mix, case numbers will rise, as kids could get infected themselves and also bring it home from school and infect their parents, and other relatives. The shoe is actually on the other foot this year for the “Open The Schools!” crowd as most teachers and most parents are likely vaccinated. On a community level we have a high vaccine uptake in SCC so things may be safer here locally. But again, I am concerned about the unvaccinated children. I applaud the intelligence of these 400 families(it doesn’t matter what percentage it is). Even though it hasn’t been promoted by the media, some children have done better online, some parents may be worried about bullying, and of course there are the obvious health and safety concerns. Back to school this year in the U.S. will range from dangerous to tenuous at best. Nationally 50 million kids go back to school and the Delta variant is 2x more transmissible than smallpox. Is reopening with Delta really “following the science?” Or is this just an attempt to push corporate profits? It just doesn’t sound safe in my opinion.


S. Underwood
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Aug 2, 2021 at 11:08 am
S. Underwood, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Aug 2, 2021 at 11:08 am

Why would we only spend $3k per year on students who need this when the district office is taking in about $25k per kid? We aren't trying to help people with different needs, instead the district seems to be checking boxes as cheaply as possible to keep its money under its control.

We are in a pandemic that is resurging. Flexibility and empowering families with choices to meet their personal student and family needs is more necessary now than ever. A $3k per year box-check and sending them on their way (legal obligation met!) is really insufficient.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 2, 2021 at 2:06 pm
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 2, 2021 at 2:06 pm

PAUSD already offered independent study (IS) before Covid.State rules said districts didn’t have to offer IS but if they did, they had to offer it fairly to everyone.I think digging would find PAUSD didn’t offer it fairly, too much favoritism esp for wealthy families who can afford advocates to pressure the district to quietly do its duty to just their kids.The district has adefault not to grant IS to students with special needs, probably because in my observation, District personnel would rather hurt a child than risk any appearance of needing to do better.Heaven forbid a child struggling in school succeed independently.Does PAUSD still have an obligation under state rules to offer the quality & flexibility of IS of the most favored students before Covid?

Sadly new state rules shamefully hurt the best preCovid IS programs,almost like they didn’t want that genie out of the bottle when people realized just “doing school” the usual way but remotely-stinks.E.g.,CA prohibited new enrollment in existing high quality offsite IS programs when Covid hit. Seriously.

When COVID hit, existing public homeschool programs that local students could and were enrolling in had long waiting lists. Students worked with experienced education specialists, often public school teachers looking for flexibility while their children are young or to make a bigger difference in lives of students struggling in traditional programs, to customize their educations.

The programs work with parents to support student independent learning. Some offer funding for students to pay for classes they chose, e.g., online college courses or learning opportunities not usually available in school (interestingly, around $3,000/student).

Instead of embracing such programs for the many kids who need that flexibility, support, customization& control of their time, along with higher quality in-person time, the state made rules to ensure most people never learned about what is possible. What a loss and shame


Diana
Registered user
Community Center
on Aug 7, 2021 at 3:52 am
Diana, Community Center
Registered user
on Aug 7, 2021 at 3:52 am

I think this is a great option and it strikes a good balance in the current situation. The district cannot support a hybrid model without substantially expanding pool of teachers, administrators and at huge cost. Nothing is zero risk, but the district has been able to operate safely during the pandemic, learned a few things, and in a highly vaccinated community like Palo Alto, this approach seems very reasonable to me given that > 95% of students prefer in person learning.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 7, 2021 at 9:07 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Aug 7, 2021 at 9:07 am

Diana why can’t the district support a hybrid model? Not all teachers want to be in person full time either. The SJUSD home studies program saved the district money and sometimes even made money while serving a highly diverse population of students with different needs.

Admit it PAUSD just doesn’t want any student to succeed through Independent learning because leadership has a misguided idea that it will make them look bad. Can’t have that, better to destroy the lives of kids. The district is saying they think being all online is bad but deliberately forcing hundreds of families into a situation they say is bad when the fix is simple.

This is going to end up a lawsuit. CA law demands equal education. This IS isn’t even equal to IS — not in-person at district schools — offered quietly to most-favored families.

In the meantime, families who are shut out should appeal to the City to provide some in-person opportunities, safely distanced, for remote learners and homeschoolers. The City already provides middle school sports.


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