Q&A with Superintendent Don Austin regarding COVID-19 related school closures


Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. 

Gunn Oracle: What primarily will drive your decision to resume school on April 13?

Superintendent Don Austin: At this point, we’re taking opening and not opening orders from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and the governor of the state of California. We certainly can’t step out in front of either of those two agencies. 

GO: What might factor into a decision to not open school?

DA: We’re not even sure that we’re in the peak of virus outbreaks yet. The peak may still be ahead. If there’s a second outbreak that starts in time in the near future, that will pretty much end school for the year.

GO: We heard that instructional minutes have been waived. Can you confirm that? [Education advocacy group Capitol Advisors Group informed the school board on Tuesday that the state of California has waived instructional minute requirements for the remainder of the school year.]

DA: Yes, instructional minutes have been waived. There’ll be no extension of the school year.

GO: Right now, for PAUSD, is the plan to just finish off the school year as is and pick up in the fall? In other words, will there be school in the summer?

DA: There will not be mandatory school in the summer. We’re trying to decide now if we’re going to have a summer school. Of course, that would depend on the governor allowing students to come back. We could do a virtual summer school not unlike what we’re trying to put together now for the rest of this year. 

GO: At the beginning of the decisions about school closures, how did you choose to use flexible learning options over online instruction?

DA: The reality is, we wanted to make sure we could deliver whatever we said we were going to do. While a lot of school districts said they were ready to go straight to online learning, they had no plan for it.  Even today, Los Angeles Unified [School District], which had said that they were going to go to online learning, pulled back. The first school district in Washington that made a big deal about saying how prepared they were got their program shut down by the state. A lot of districts around the area said that they were going to online learning, which was really PDF files downloaded from a website, or really poorly planned Zoom meetings. We’re trying to go slower and do it better. People think we’re behind for the first two weeks. I’m totally okay with that, because we’re going to do a better job in the long run.

GO: How do you plan to restructure the curriculum?

DA: The good news is that we have an army of instructional leads, and they’re working together tirelessly. We also set aside time, from 9 o’clock to 10 o’clock every day of the week for faculty-staff collaboration. We’re trying to provide tools, and they’re going to provide the curriculum.

GO: On the subject of flexible learning options, will flexible learning options remain optional? 

DA: Probably through spring break. On the back end, we’re going to have to figure out a system to start awarding credit. There’s a chance that our schools won’t come back at all this year, so we can’t make the rest of the year optional. Right now, what we’re encouraging students to do is to keep up their studies. If they don’t, it’s going to be harder to pick it back up.

GO: Let’s say that school remains closed for the rest of the year. If so, what is your process for building up from flexible online learning options to just pure online learning?

DA: We broke [our plan] into two phases. Phase One was this week, which was “let’s get our feet under us and give you guys some stuff to look at.”

GO: You’re buying time through Phase One, basically. 

DA: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly what it is. [During] Phase Two, we’re easing in and getting our feet wet. We’re getting the students used to finding some time to connect with teachers during their office hours. I’m sure we’re going to start trying some group instruction through Zoom and trying some different things. After spring break, it’s gonna start looking a whole lot like we are a virtual school, to the best of our ability. It’s gonna take us some time, but I’d say after spring break, it’s going to look like this is where we’re settling—trying to replicate instruction to the best of our ability.

GO: So the main goal of the process is to eventually be able to fully transition into a virtual school.

DA: I’d say fully transition with reasonable expectations.

GO: Will teachers be allowed to use Zoom as we go forward in the next few weeks?

DA: Yes, teachers are not only allowed to use Zoom, but we also pushed out guidelines and training modules for teachers to be able to use it effectively. 

GO: How will AP courses work for the next few weeks or months? [On Friday morning, Collegeboard announced AP tests would be reduced to a shortened at-home test; AP tests will not test content covered after March.]

DA: I’ll be very surprised if you ever take an AP test this year. I would hope that there’s a way to mitigate this for AP students who took a class with the expectation of receiving college credit. But until it happens, it’s gonna be tough. It’s pretty clear that the gathering rules are going to make it impossible to test on school sites. If they can come up with an online version, that’s great, but I don’t think that’s a done deal yet. As of the information we have right this minute, there is not a good alternative to in-person testing. Trying [to have at-home AP tests] and implementing it are two different things. I’d be hopeful, but it would make sense if the College Board can’t do it. 

Update, 3/23: In light of College Board offering shortened AP tests online, Austin said that he was “both surprised and pleased to see that the College Board has created an avenue for AP testing.” The district will shortly be sending out a letter explaining the new process for testing, according to Austin. 

GO: What about the CAASPP testing now that federal standardized testing has been canceled? [On Friday morning, President Trump announced the Department of Education would not be enforcing federal requirements for standardized testing.]

DA: At the end of the day, it just didn’t make any sense to push forward with CAASPP testing this year. It’s not an editorial comment about the validity of the test. I’m a huge supporter of assessments to drive instruction to measure progress, but this year, that’s about the least important thing we should be worried about.

GO: You mentioned in some of your updates at the start of the process that you’re having some issues with communicating to the community. What are your plans for communication going forward?

DA: It’s a combination of posting and pushing information. But pretty soon, that’s going to shift from the district level to school sites. We had to answer a million questions in the beginning. But as we shift into what we’re calling Phase Two, which is the next two weeks, and then Phase Three, which is anytime after spring break, [communication is] going to be coming much more from principals and teachers.

GO: How do you plan on using the powers granted to you through the emergency resolution passed by the board a couple of days ago?

DA: If I need to do a contract with somebody to expand services, I can just do it now. It helps me to clarify and define work days for employees. Who knows what’s going to show up that’s unforeseen? There could be something that pops up that we would have never imagined. Instead of having to call a meeting, there could be something so important that I have to make a decision on the spot. The board has granted me that authority.

GO: How will the district handle cases of students testing positive for COVID-19?

DA: The reality is, we’re not reporting individual cases at this point. That’s at the direction of the county; they’re not reporting either. The guidance from the county is for everyone to assume that you’ve been exposed, or you’re going to be exposed. We should expect lots of cases across the state. That’s just the nature of this virus.

GO: What’s the system for free and reduced lunches now? And will you continue to use the same system in the coming weeks? [Currently, PAUSD distributes lunches at three different school sites in a drive-through delivery system.]

DA: Those rules are changing pretty rapidly. We’d like to be able to set up a volunteer delivery system. Right now that’s not allowed by the federal regulations, and we get a lot of trouble [if we violate] that. So I think [the situation] is going to keep evolving, but our Food Service program is up and operational. We’re doing about 600 meals a day—that might go up with time. 

GO: How are we accommodating students with Individualized Education Program (IEP) plans or 504 plans?

DA: We’re putting plans in place right now. The students that had the toughest time accessing material in the first place didn’t suddenly develop an ability to access it better remotely. We’re trying to find ways to support those students at home. We’re probably about a week out from being able to push out the services that we’re hoping to.

GO: Right now, a lot of students are understandably confused or anxious about the future. Is there anything you’d like to say to students right now?

DA: Have some faith in the people who have invested in you since you were here in kindergarten. The same teachers still care about you; in fact, I’m watching the work that they’re doing. It’s impressive, and it’s amazing.

We need to remember that three weeks ago, teachers weren’t thinking about shifting all of their instruction online. It’s going to take some time to do it well. Just like teachers have been understanding when students are trying to learn new material, we’re hoping that our students and families can be just as understanding while our teachers try to learn a very, very different way of providing instruction. 

For more answers to FAQs, check out Dr. Austin’s Plain Talk page on the PAUSD website: https://www.pausd.org/coronavirus/plain-talk-faq