Schools open (today!)

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THE RETURN: Palo Alto High School students line up in front of the Haymarket Theater this morning to check in before going to their first in-person class in almost a year. According to the Paly Administration’s “Zoom in the Room Handbook,” “Students must visit a Health Screening Check-in Station prior to going to class each day.” Photo by Anya Lassila.

“On any given day I’ll receive 100 emails on [school reopening],” said Superintendent Don Austin in an interview with Anthro over Zoom on Jan 25. What he described is an inbox inundated with messages from people urging him to open the schools, and those telling him to keep them closed on top of many, many emails that are people sharing their experiences with this school year.

“In my mind, we have put Spring to bed,” Austin said. Ten weeks later, he has pulled a full-360.

“I was wrong,” he wrote on Feb. 12 in an email to Palo Alto Unified School District community. “And I will add that I am thankful for being wrong and believe schools should be open.” 

As of Tuesday, students and teachers have returned to campus for in-person learning. Students on campus are in a classroom but class is taught through Zoom so students who chose to stay distance learning can be taught simultaneously.  

There also is the question of teacher vaccinations. “Until our educators and support staff can be vaccinated, there is still the worry that they and students could contract the virus and get very sick,” Baldwin stated in an email interview with Anthro on Feb. 5.

One concern was that students will have a hard time maintaining the social distancing guidelines, and many students will defy or disregard the distancing rules. “I have driven through Palo Alto and seen middle and high school-aged kids walking or riding bikes without masks and not six feet apart from each other,” Baldwin said. “Others have reported seeing the same, so that does worry our educators that students will bring this extra exposure in the classroom.

But, now that schools have successfully reopened, more pieces are falling into place. When it comes to planning, Noel Berghout — a sixth grade teacher at JLS Middle School is optimistic, noting that the number of unresolved questions from teachers is decreasing as time goes on and the “teachers and the administration have a growth mindset about this.”

On March 2, Paly also published the Zoom in the Room Handbook as well as a ten-minute Youtube video containing a detailed explanation of the expectations upon returning to campus. Students are expected to stay six feet apart at all times, wear their masks, and wash their hands frequently. The plan also covers distancing in other parts of campus like the wellness center, health office, and during lunch time. 

Berghout still has mixed feelings about returning to in-person instruction. “I think there’s a lot of vocal folks about it being a big struggle, which I can totally understand for kids and parents” Berghout said in an interview with Anthro over Zoom on Tuesday. “But I think there’s also a silent group who things are working pretty well for.”   

The administration of the COVID-19 vaccine has provided a light at the end of the tunnel, creating hope of schools returning to in-person instruction. Still, there is the possibility that social distancing and other measures may be needed in the fall.

With the potential that many teachers and students could be vaccinated by this fall, that poses questions as to whether those without the vaccine should be allowed back on school campus. A survey conducted by the Board found that only 10% of students wanted to return to school with the previous plan proposed in the Spring, frustrated by lack of communication and the possibility of schedule and teacher changes. Now, according to an article from The Paly Voice, 43% of students are planning to return when the option becomes available. 

When asked in an interview Austin’s thoughts about reopening without requiring the vaccine, he said, “absent a state order, we would not require [vaccines].” This is because of two problems that arise. Vaccines have not been tested on people under age 16 so far and there is potential that some parents will object to having their children get the vaccine, according to Austin.

The PAEA also feels that vaccines should not be required at this point, but they could be in the future. “We do hope that any staff and students who are eligible will choose to be vaccinated,” Baldwin said. The PAEA is hoping that educators can be vaccinated by the fall, and if so, the association would like to continue to help the district plan a return to school that is a safe environment for students.

As Austin said when discussing what he has learned over this year, “I don’t think there’s anything we can propose that’s not going to get backlash.”