District provides resources remotely for disadvantaged, Special Education students


Graphic by Sophie Fan

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) have been closed since March 13 to protect the health and safety of students and staff. While every student has been impacted by adjusting to online learning, the students who have previously relied on the district for support and additional resources have been especially impacted. PAUSD is working to provide resources such as free or reduced lunch, online aides, therapy services and technology to those in need. However, there have been certain limitations.

In the initial response period to the virus, families contacted the district with a variety of concerns. School Board Member Jennifer DiBrienza highlighted the emotional responses from families. “We have heard from parents of students saying, ‘We want more stuff, we want to just be as normal as possible. We want to feel like we’re in school all day,’ and other families that have reached out and said, ‘Please don’t do quite so much, we’re just trying to stay afloat here,’” DiBrienza said. At the April 21 school board meeting, DiBrienza mentioned her own student’s reaction to the lockdown. “My kid had anxiety before, and their anxiety is sky-high now and they can’t engage in work at all,” she said. In order to communicate with families and ensure that they are receiving the support they need, DiBrienza pointed to the district’s newly-established resources page. “We let people know, ‘Hey, if you’re struggling emotionally here’s somewhere you can go,’” she said.

For students in the Special Education department, it can be especially difficult to navigate the online learning platform without inperson support. Special Education department Instructional Lead Teri Lee emphasized the department’s efforts to try to replicate in-person interactions online. “Students have case managers who are working with them via Schoology messages, Zoom sessions, all of those things,” she said. “We also have virtual academic support classrooms that are available with teachers and instructional aides for students with their assignments that way. Then, to receive additional services, [such as] speech and language therapy or physical therapy or occupational therapy, they’re receiving those services through telephone service as well.”

However, PAUSD Secondary Education Program Specialist Jacqueline Selfridge cited the lack of physical interactions as an obstacle for students. “Having that face-to-face contact for students is really important, being able to work one-on-one or even in a small group in-person with teachers,” she said. “It’s really hard to do online.”

While making decisions about the structure of online learning during this time, the district accounts for the impact on every family, such as living conditions or responsibilities family members must juggle. “Some students are having to even work outside of the home to help their families right now, so they’re going to work with their parents, and that is really challenging, because then when are the students supposed to get their homework done?” DiBrienza said. “Some have younger siblings that they’re taking care of.”

Another factor that the district accounts for is the economic impact on students of being away from school. “Some of our families really rely on the school district for food, mental health services, for different services beyond academics, and those are harder to fulfill,” DiBrienza said. The district has also been working to provide reduced or free lunches to those students who qualify. “The district now is delivering, I believe, over 100 meals a day to people’s houses, because some families need the school lunch but they don’t have a car, or the parent is at work, or they don’t live anywhere close enough to a school that they can walk,” DiBrienza said. Privacy laws have become an obstacle in connecting with and accommodating every family, however. “If you qualify for free or reduced lunch, not every district employee gets to know who that list is. So the principal doesn’t even know who in her school qualifies for free or reduced lunch,” DiBrienza said.

Some students also lack the technology to join Zoom meetings with teachers and classmates. The district immediately responded to provide the appropriate technology. “The first thing [we did] as soon as we shut down was [to ask] who can access Schoology and technology from home,” DiBrienza said. “We’ve given out somewhere between 2,500 to 3,000 devices to PAUSD students.”

At the end of the day, the district recognizes that a vast variety of situations exist, and tries to accommodate all situations before making any decisions about education. “There are some kids that are worried about where their next meal is going to come from, and that are worried about a parent who’s an essential worker or sick,” DiBrienza said. “Other kids are just bored and frustrated, missing their friends. They’re all valid worries, but they’re very different.”