School Reopening: PAUSD Back-to-school perspectives

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Karlene Salas

Art by Palina Kuzmina

Photo by Tyler Wang

“A five-hour meeting was run, only for us to be ignored,” junior Sarah Chung said.

After a lengthy Nov. 10 board meeting filled with angry public comments, the Palo Alto Board of Education approved a pandemic reopening proposal that was a “half-baked plan meant to ‘tick the box’ of returning,” according to junior Kabir Bhatia.

It was a moment that called for action against a plan that would put the community in harm’s way, Chung and Bhatia said. The two started a petition that ultimately would garner almost 700 signatures. Also, Chung emailed the Palo Alto High School administration to express her opposition to the plan, receiving a response she described as “dismissive.” . 

Together, these two actions crystalized a student response that although ultimately proving unnecessary — when Santa Clara County  moved to the Purple Tier all talk of shifting a hybrid schedule for second semester ended — demonstrated the voice of the school’s student community.

Activist Perspectives

The board plan would have separated the hybrid students into cohorts. In addition, high school students who decided to choose the hybrid learning option would have only had Social Studies and English classes in-person.

 During the meeting, numerous parents, teachers and students expressed their thoughts on the plan. A majority of those who spoke out expressed disappointment and worry about reopening. 

“It will destroy relationships with teachers because it changes everyone’s schedule,” one speaker said. 

“Teachers are distraught that they don’t have a say in any of this,” another said.

“How will this help anybody? a student said.

“Why wouldn’t we try to go back? It’s better, right? They don’t understand that their plan is worse for students.”

Kabir Bhatia, Paly junior

As the opposition for the secondary school reopening continued throughout the night, students started to take action. Chung and Bhatia, along with five other juniors, created a petition against the plan that stated, “We believe that the current benefits of the proposed reopening plan, most notably the ability to return to the classroom, are heavily outweighed by the harms of the student population, their families, and staff.”

Bhatia said they made the petition after the Nov. 10 school board meeting. “When asked what the overarching goal for the hybrid learning plan was, the district seemed unable to grasp the question,” Bhatia said. “Why wouldn’t we try to go back? It’s better, right? They don’t understand that their plan is worse for students.”

Junior Colleen Wang said the petition first started out as an open letter with statistics concerning the virus, but as more of her classmates read and talked about it, she realized they all had ideas that should be added to the open letter. “After revising, we decided to start a petition to promote this open letter as well to make sure PAUSD can listen to us instead of ignoring us,” she said.

Junior Matthew Cao, another one of the petition makers, said the district should be more cautious and avoid taking unnecessary risks. “Covid-19 is absolutely not a joke and it seemed that the board needed a formalized and organized reminder of why the community is outraged at the plan.”

Chung agreed with the arguments made against hybrid scheduling due to rising Covid cases in the county. “Although petitions were going around at that time for a demand to shut down school because of so many concerns such as cases rising up in our city, Don Austin said that school will continue and didn’t shut it down until the final warning and issue by the California governor,” Chung said. 

“I felt like publicizing a document filled with sources, ranging from CNN to Inside Edition, analysis such as statistics and interviews, and electronic signatures signed directly from one’s device would bring more stress into our demand for reconsideration of this Hybrid System,” Chung said.

Reopening Concerns

Paly senior Daniela Rodriguez argued only having Social Studies and English classes available in-person will not help students who need to learn in a face-to-face setting. “Personally, math, electives and science classes seem to be classes that are more important,” Rodriguez said. “Many science classes include labs, elective classes include auto and photography, and math classes due to its density and questions that arise.”

Teachers activated too

Since English and Social studies teachers would have to return to school if they were chosen for the hybrid schedule, they would have to create new lesson plans for their hybrid  classes. 

“It is likely that I will need to significantly redo the hybrid curriculum and create new assignments, just as I redid the curriculum this past summer to adapt to our distance model,” Paly English teacher Mimi Park said. “Lifting the current distance curriculum and applying it to hybrid wouldn’t be as effective in mind as the modes of learning are so different.”

A first grade PAUSD teacher says because of the hybrid schedules, she has had to do more preparation and planning for her classes. “It almost feels like we now have to prepare work for two classes, you have your live class where you’re preparing for, you’re teaching and now you have to prepare the same lesson but in the Schoology format,” she said. 

More work would have been expected from the English and Social Studies teachers if there was more support behind the hybrid learning plan. However, English and Social Studies teachers are not the only ones who would have been affected by the reopening plan. In order to create the cohorts, all schedules would have had  to change. 

An excerpt from an open letter from the Palo Alto Educators Association says, “ To open for hybrid in-person instruction, almost all of the students will need to be reassigned to new teachers, and many teachers will be displaced,” regardless of if a student chooses hybrid or distance.

“Our teachers have worked tirelessly to transform their teaching practice into a distance approach, and it is working for the vast majority of our students. There is nothing that we would like more than for things to go back to ‘normal.’ Unfortunately, this cannot happen until we have this virus under control, and it no longer poses a substantial threat to the health and safety of our PAUSD community. We need to stay vigilant and not let our guard down a minute too soon.”

Online vs. In-Person Classes

Although some are frustrated and scared to return to in-person school, some students are struggling with online learning and want to return.

Rodriguez said it’s difficult to concentrate on her classes when other family members are also on their own Zoom meetings. “School has become a huge hassle with social distance schooling,” she said. “School has become lifeless, monotonous, and repetitive. Looking at a screen for more than eight hours on end has brought a toll on my eye sight. I found out a few months ago that my vision is worsening.”

For junior Nolan You, interacting with his peers is something he misses. “I feel that I am lacking the social interaction that I would get from chatting with people that I don’t know, or people that I am familiar with to chat with but probably wouldn’t actively reach out to them.”

Some students simply prefer online learning. “Online school has been going pretty well for me and my brothers,” senior Audrey Chu said. “For me, the pros really do outweigh the cons just because I get much more control over my time. Since I’m a senior, college apps demand a lot of time, which I have been getting due to online school.” 

“It almost feels like we now have to prepare work for two classes”

First Grade Teacher
Logistics of Reopening

The district’s history with the pandemic — including an incident at Escondido Elementary School — is an important part of what students and teachers have been concerned about. 

Sometime in October, according to a source Anthro spoke with, a student from Escondido tested positive for Covid-19. A parent informed the school that their child was exposed to a positive case so the student was tested. The school quickly sent students of the exposed child’s cohort into quarantine and had the whole cohort and teacher tested.

The child’s test came back positive, the source said, but the other students and teacher tested negative. All of the parents of the school wereinformed about the incident via email. “Luckily there weren’t any other infections,” Escondido parent Mindey Haase said. “Sounds like the masks and social distancing worked.” 

On Nov. 16, Superintendent Don Austin emailed staff and families regarding Santa Clara County moving two levels — to the Purple Tier—without notice.  This sudden change meant that high school would not be allowed to reopen until Santa Clara County had moved back into the red tier for at least 14 consecutive days. 

Still, for middle schools, the district is exploring options to return in March, according to a Dec. 4 update from Austin.

Principal Brent Kline indicated that he will respond to the change by expanding PAUSD+, a program which works to help students affected by the pandemic, to support the 10 percent of students who chose to do hybrid. “I plan to continue to improve our learning model and look for new opportunities for our students to connect with each other and their teachers,” Kline said.

This new plan seems to appease those who opposed the hybrid plan. “I think this is the best possible option right now,” Bhatia said. “It won’t be perfect, but expanding PAUSD+ would support struggling students without disrupting the learning environment we have already built. I thank the district for their reconsideration in this matter, and hopefully we can take this time to come up with a better plan for a wider return to school when it becomes safer.”

Younger kids, teachers back in the classroom

“It was the best day ever!” said Gabby, Mindey Haase’s third grade daughter. It was Oct. 12,  and Gabby had just returned home from her first day back at school in person in six months.

She wasn’t alone in her excitement. Many younger students were happy to be back. Their parents and teachers were too, albeit with some trepidation. 

For Haase and kindergarten grandparent Kate Chesley, dealing with online school has been a rollercoaster of emotions. Keeping students engaged in their school work is already tough, but trying to keep younger children’s attention on the screen when they are in a home setting is even more difficult. “During this time that we’ve been at home has not really been great for her academically,” Haase said. “She went from a child that was always sitting in the front row and always really engaged to a child that would do anything she could to get off Zoom.”

Chesley said because this was her granddaughter’s first year of school, she had to be present with her for her classes.

“The teachers were great,” Chesley said. “They did a great job with the kids, but five-year-old children have short attention spans and are easily frustrated. Remote learning doesn’t really work for [kindergarteners] no matter how gifted the teacher is.” 

Some people were worried that elementary school students would not be able to understand the scope of the pandemic enough to go back to school safely. 

“She went from a child that was always sitting in the front row and always really engaged to a child that would do anything she could to get off Zoom.”

Mindey Haase, parent

However, a first grade teacher from the district said that kids are smarter than some believe. “The kids are good about wearing their mask,” the first grade teacher said. “They’re under that expectation that they have to wear it. That’s not an issue.”

When the teacher heard she had to teach classes in-person, she was nervous because they were to start during flu season. “We were just pushed into it,” she said. “But once it happened, we learned how to deal with it.”

Since hybrid learning prohibits close collaboration with their peers, the teachers said it is hard to have fun while learning. “It doesn’t when it’s not how we normally would be, because when the kids are here, we feed off their energy,” she said. “We are trying to make it as much fun and as engaging as possible for them and let them know how much we care about them. It’s a challenge for them but I don’t even know if they realize how hard it is for us.”