Rising staff absences as the COVID-19 omicron variant surges have led the Palo Alto Unified School District to ask parents to step up and volunteer on campuses in an effort to keep schools open.
The school district launched the "1 Palo Alto" campaign on Sunday night, Jan. 9, and by mid-day on Monday, more than 500 parents had already signed up, Superintendent Don Austin said. By Wednesday, sign-ups had surpassed 750.
"This number, it just really speaks to who our parents are and what they see in our schools," Austin said in a Monday interview.
The district has launched a webpage where parents can learn about the campaign and fill out a form to participate. Available roles include helping out in school offices, supervising students during lunch and recess, aiding with school meal distribution and assisting at COVID-19 testing clinics.
On Wednesday afternoon, Herbert Hoover Elementary School PTA President Ira Pamnani organized a small group of parents to sanitize the school after kids left for the day. Five volunteers, including Pamnani, disinfected desks, chairs, doorknobs and other areas kids and school staff frequently touch.
According to Pamnani, Hoover already had a group of roughly 15 to 20 parent volunteers helping out on campus this school year, but with 1 Palo Alto, nearly 40 more signed up.
"We'll just take it day by day and figure out how many volunteers we need for each task – but now we have a list of people to work with," Pamnani said.
In addition to jobs like disinfecting surfaces, parents also could end up helping out in classrooms. Though a certificated teacher is required to oversee students, classes at the middle and high school level could hypothetically get combined, so that one teacher supervises a larger group, with support from parent volunteers, Austin said.
He stressed that would only be done if necessary and that the secondary schools have large spaces with high ceilings that could accommodate bigger groups of students.
The district is averaging around 70 teacher absences per day, compared to a normal daily rate of around 50, Austin said. The challenges have been compounded by difficulties in recruiting substitute teachers, which have hit districts nationwide.
When there aren't enough traditional substitute teachers to fill all the spots on a given day, the district has been able to get by thus far with a combination of teachers filling in during their preparation periods and administrators and other staff who have a teaching credential covering classes.
On Monday, Jan. 10, there were 19 unfilled substitute teaching spots in Palo Alto, which Austin said the district was ultimately able to fill. If those numbers go up, the district could combine classes and turn to parent volunteers to provide added support.
Ultimately though, many of the roles that parents are likely to be asked to fill are in behind-the-scenes positions.
"We need help in areas many people don't even know exist," Austin said in a video message to parents. "It won't be glamorous — many of the essential jobs that occur every day to support your kids aren't glamorous."
All volunteers need to be vaccinated and high school students can earn service hours by volunteering in roles that are appropriate and don't conflict with their class schedule, according to the district's website.
"With every volunteer, it's just adding confidence to our ability to stay open," Austin said. "If we don't need to use everybody through this surge, that's fine, but we're not going to be the district that's not prepared."
Palo Alto Unified has seen a big spike in COVID-19 cases, similar to those experienced by many school districts. In a Friday, Jan. 7, email to families, the district reported 382 COVID-19 cases among students and staff, 144 of which had been on campuses. In the fall semester, before the omicron variant hit, the district was reporting weekly case counts in the single digits.
As parents have seen cases skyrocket and staffing shortages persist, Pamnani said that many want to do whatever they can to ensure their children are able to remain in the classroom, rather than return to online schooling.
"Schools are the heartbeat of Palo Alto," Pamnani said. "People move here just for the schools and we will do whatever we can to keep them open."
Austin had warned earlier this month that classrooms could be forced online due to staffing shortages. That's no longer on the table, Austin said.
"I want to be clear: Unless we're compelled by an outside agency with authority, PAUSD will remain open," Austin told parents in the video. "We will not close."
In an interview, Austin said that recent guidance from the state and Santa Clara County has made clear that moving classes online isn't currently permitted because the state law that allowed for virtual learning has expired.
"As of June 30, 2021, school districts may no longer offer remote or virtual learning in lieu of in-person instruction. Students learn best when they are amongst their peers and have access to school resources," the Santa Clara County Office of Education and Santa Clara County Public Health Department said in a joint Jan. 7 press release.
In a Jan. 9 email to school officials that Austin shared with the Weekly, county Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan made clear that districts "do not have the explicit legal authority to shift to virtual learning."
If schools can't operate because of staffing shortages, they can seek a waiver from the state, but have to offer independent study and demonstrate they've exhausted all other options, Dewan said. If a district does close, it could use built-in smoke or snow days, while maintaining the required 180-day school year.