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On-campus instruction returns to Paly

Economics teacher Grant Blackburn sits alone behind a sheet of clear plastic, with no students in sight. Although in-person classes were made available to all students starting March 9, many still opt to take classes remotely. Teachers, however, are required to return to campuses.

Following growing demand from community members, PAUSD reopened school-wide in-person learning at its middle and high schools on March 9. In the first week, about a quarter of the student body attended either athletics or in-person classes at Paly, attendance secretary Christa Brown said.

Students have the option to return to school in person, but can stay home and continue to participate on Zoom if they prefer. If students return to in-person school, they log onto Zoom in their classroom and remain synchronous with the rest of the class. If a student’s class is full based on COVID-19 health regulations, or their teacher is not in person, they then go to an overflow room — the big gym, the library or the student center — where they participate through Zoom as normal.

Junior Yash Vora chose to return to in-person learning. He said he sees an increase in his focus when it comes to listening to lectures and staying engaged.

“Now, I usually have to wake up earlier to prepare myself for getting to school on time,” Vora said. “With the change in scenery from my room to an actual school classroom, it is much easier to pay attention. The three to four people at school are in one breakout room, so then I am able to talk to them in person.”

Most teachers also returned in person, with exceptions being those who have medical conditions that could put them at higher risk if they caught COVID-19. English teacher Keith Tocci has returned to in-person teaching and said his focus remains primarily on Zoom while he’s teaching in his classroom, since most of the students in his classes are still learning remotely.

“I’m enjoying the change in scenery and being able to see my students,” Tocci said. “But we need to be strictly reminding each other to make sure we are distancing, as that is our responsibility.”

Tocci also said students seem to feel more comfortable asking him questions in person.

But despite positive aspects of the plan, the district’s controversial decision to require teachers to return to campus frustrated many, including science teacher Nicole Loomis.

“It seems to me like a very political move,” Loomis said. “The fact that the district called us back without even caring that people hadn’t been vaccinated was really jarring. It really did not foster a lot of goodwill among teachers.”

Part of PAUSD’s reopening plan requires a closed campus until Santa Clara County switches to the orange tier in the state’s reopening plan. The City of Palo Alto said this could happen as early as this week, given the lower daily rates of positive COVID-19 tests in the county.

While COVID-19 safety concerns have stopped some students from returning, junior Brooke Glasson said she has been reassured by the district’s safety precautions.

“The classrooms feel huge, and there’s usually only about three other students,” Glasson said. “Everyone wears masks, and there are shields on each desk. I would say it’s pretty safe.”

However, Glasson is concerned about lunchtime. While district rules say students can take their masks off while they eat, they are still required to sit at least six feet apart.

“The only thing that’s kind of unsafe is lunch,” Glasson said. “People keep their masks off and sit in large groups. Teachers try to disperse people, but I don’t know if that’s really effective.”

Despite abnormal circumstances, freshman Scarlett Cummings said returning felt like the first day of school.

“Paly has a lot bigger of a campus (than Greene Middle School), and I had no clue where anything was,” Cummings said. “But I thought it was really cool to see where my classes were and to meet my teachers.”

Despite some of the downsides, Vora, Cummings and Glasson all said they plan to continue coming to school in person for the rest of the year.

Cummings said, “Doing Zoom from school is still better than doing Zoom from home, even if the teacher isn’t there.”

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