Kindergarten and first grade students returned to district campuses and began in-person learning on Oct. 12, with other grades to follow in the coming weeks.
This decision was voted on by the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education during an emergency meeting on Sept. 29, as a staggered plan to reopen all elementary schools. Second and third graders return on Oct. 26, and fourth and fifth graders on Nov. 9. Their choice was met with controversy.
The Palo Alto Educators Association, the district’s teachers’ union, asked the district to consider staying in full online learning mode for the entire semester in an open letter to the school board on Sept. 27. On each page, in bolded font, the PAEA wrote “We don’t want to be first; we want to be safe!”
Over 300 parents signed another letter, also asking for the district to postpone inperson learning as well. Parents had until Wednesday, Sept. 30 to decide whether their children would return.
According to the PAEA, a survey they conducted showed that 90% of elementary school teachers said they don’t feel comfortable changing to a hybrid learning environment in the fall.
“There are still too many unknowns about the long-term effects of this virus, and we should not be risking the health and lives of our students, educators, and staff,” PAEA President Teri Baldwin said.
Hoover Elementary first grade teacher Victoria Chavez, who returned to teach inperson last Monday, said she didn’t feel very comfortable returning either. Chavez said she only made the decision to come back in order to protect her older colleagues.
“Me being healthy and one of the younger teachers here, I felt like I wanted to help the other teachers, I wanted to be there for my co-workers,” Chavez said. “And if they can’t come back, and I can, then that’s something that I wanted to do.”
Despite strong opposition to this plan from many teachers, PAUSD School Board candidate and elementary school parent Karna Nisewaner said teachers should return to teach in-person classes.
“There are things that make you uncomfortable. There (are) things that don’t feel good,” Nisewaner said. “But our nurses had to go back to work. Our bus drivers had to go back to work, all sorts of people, all sorts of essential workers had to go back to work and feel uncomfortable. Just because you feel uncomfortable, doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your job.”
PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin said the district needs to bring back the youngest students first. “I think we need to end (distance learning),” Austin said. “I think we should say, ‘Wow, great experiment. We learned a lot. Let’s get out of it.’ Online is not fun for anybody, but it’s awful for a five-year-old.”
Nisewaner, the parent of a second and fifth grade in the district, said online learning has been difficult, especially for her second grader.
“It’s been horrible,” Nisewaner said. “He cries almost every day. He doesn’t connect with other kids or really even with his teacher through the online interaction.”
After input from the PAEA, both online and in-person elementary students will attend an online Zoom meeting each morning before school, and the district presented a safety report at the board meeting on Oct. 13.
Chavez said that she is proud of how her new students are dealing with this unprecendented change.
“We’re still just getting used to it,” Chavez said. “I mean, they haven’t been in school for seven months.”
Chavez said that online school is difficult for elementary students, but she said she still thinks that it is the better alternative.
“I think (distance learning) went really well,” Chavez said. “And honestly, I would have stayed distance learning all year and been fine with it.”