Depending on Santa Clara County’s classification under California’s new four-tier color-coded system for tracking COVID-19, in-person instruction could start as early as Monday, Oct. 12 for Palo Alto Unified School District students, with small groups having already begun returning to campus as of Sept. 8.
Guidelines put out by the California Public Health Department in late August cleared schools to open campuses to a maximum of 25% of the school’s population, with a focus on students with disabilities and students struggling with online learning provided the school’s county permits these guidelines.
Under these regulations, cohorts of 14 non-rotating students supervised by two adults can return to campus in “controlled, supervised and indoor environments.”
In response to these guidelines, the district created PAUSD+, a program already allowing students struggling with online learning and special education students to return to campus daily.
Students struggling with online learning started returning to campus as of Sept. 8, and students with disabilities began returning to school as of Sept. 14.
Superintendent Don Austin said PAUSD+ will not expand to students in lab classes or hands-on classes like art. Only one to two cohorts are allowed on campus right now, he said.
“We’re starting with a small number of students because we want to get it right,” Austin said. “Once we get it right, we can expand.”
For the majority of PAUSD students, however, in-person instruction will not start until at least Oct. 12, as per a memorandum of understanding between the district and the Palo Alto Educators Association, teacher’s union.
The memorandum of understanding says regardless of Santa Clara County’s tier status, PAUSD schools will not start before Oct. 12.
PAEA President Teri Baldwin said while the PAEA agreed to the memorandum, they do not agree with the way the district is interpreting a date for reopening.
“PAEA wanted all grade levels and programs to remain in full-distance learning until January where we could re-evaluate the spread of the virus at that point,” Baldwin said. “Since October is in the cold and flu season, we really don’t believe we should be going back in-person then.”
To begin in-person instruction on Oct. 12, Santa Clara County would need to be in the Red Tier for 14 consecutive days prior to Oct. 9.
The Red Tier is part of a new, four-level tier introduced by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28, replacing the county watchlist. The Red Tier is the second highest level of transmission, requiring counties to have four to seven cases per 100,000 people per day and a test positivity rate between 5 and 8%.ngSc
If Santa Clara County is not in the Red Tier for 14 consecutive days by Nov. 2, the rest of first semester will remain online, though Austin said that the district can choose not to return even if the county is in the Red Tier for 14 days prior to this date.
In a Sept. 16 update, Austin outlined the proposed return dates for all grade levels. According to the update, elementary grades would return in a staggered format, with kindergarten through first grade returning on Oct. 12, second through third grade returning on Oct. 26, and fourth through fifth grade returning on Nov. 9.
Grades 6 through 12 are slated to begin in-person instruction on Jan. 7.
The Board of Education has yet to vote on the proposed dates.
“There is much more to explain and consider,” Austin said.
Should classes need to be moved online once in-person instruction begins, that policy, unlike the county policy for beginning in-person instruction, is a city policy.
Austin said to move back to virtual classes once in-person instruction begins, Palo Alto would have to move into the Purple Tier. If Santa Clara County were to move into the Purple Tier but Palo Alto remained in the Red Tier, classes are allowed to remain in-person.
If schools do open first semester, there’s no guarantee that they start in-person second semester either, Austin said. However, the policy for returning to in-person instruction second semester is different from that for returning to school first semester, depending less on the county.
“(If) we went to Red but didn’t actually come back, but we could have, that still is the same as coming off (the Purple Tier),” Austin said. “So as long as our local indicators aren’t back in the Purple, we can come back second semester even if the county does go back to Purple.”
The district has proposed multiple schedules for when students return to in-person instruction. Principal Kline said when students first return to Paly, classes will be in a hybrid model where half of the students, split within each grade, will spend two days on campus, while the other half spends a different pair of days on campus. On days when students are not on campus, they will have virtual classes similar to the current, synchronous format.
Austin said it is possible schools could eventually shift into a fully in-person schedule, five days a week, during the 2020-2021 school year, with an option for students to remain solely in an online setting.
However, both the proposed schedules and the return to school itself are hypothetical.
“Students at the secondary level have to have their mind wrapped around the possibility that they won’t be back until January,” Austin said. “They should be hopeful about earlier, optimistic about January.