PAUSD school board unanimously votes to approve middle and high school reopening plan despite community concerns

The Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school board voted unanimously to approve the secondary schools reopening plan on Tuesday evening, despite vocal opposition from community members. Both student school board representatives voted against the plan.

The reopening plan will give students the option to choose between distance learning–the system currently in place for the fall semester–or hybrid learning, in which students will be able to return to school for their English and social studies classes two days of the week.

Students choosing hybrid learning will be put into isolated cohorts of 15 students; students remaining in distance learning will face increased class sizes of up to 40 students per class. Regardless of which model students choose, their teachers and schedules are likely to change.

Parents of secondary school students will have a weeklong period (beginning tomorrow and ending on Nov. 18) to choose their plan for next semester. Once chosen, the plan will be binding for the entirety of the semester.”

Parents of secondary school students will have a weeklong period (beginning tomorrow and ending on Nov. 18) to choose their plan for next semester. Once chosen, the plan will be binding for the entirety of the semester. Students can either remain in distance learning or return in-person for two periods under a hybrid model; because no more than 30% of students are allowed to return to campus, there will also be a third option for a student to tentatively select the hybrid model but revert to distance learning if a large number of other people choose the hybrid model. 

However, the board’s decision came after tens of complaints from community members during tonight’s board meeting as students, parents and teachers came together to advocate to remain in distance learning.

During the open forum session, biology teacher Maria Powell argued that given the complexity of the hybrid model, schedule and teacher changes are inevitable and for the worse. “Kids won’t thrive if their schedules are upended and scrambled mid-year; they won’t thrive when they have to start new classes with new teachers, new systems and new expectations,” she said. “Please stop perpetuating the fallacy that the academic experience for students will improve with a partial return.”

Senior Henry Poole, also speaking during the open forum session, noted the lack of details in the reopening plan. “This plan is terrible,” he said. “I don’t mean that as a joke. This plan is really half-baked. How are we as students supposed to make a concrete decision on something that will be [in effect] for the rest of the semester on such short notice?”

This plan is terrible. I don’t mean that as a joke. This plan is really half-baked. How are we as students supposed to make a concrete decision on something that will be [in effect] for the rest of the semester on such short notice?”

— Senior Henry Poole

Gunn Student Board Representative Thomas Li expressed concern at potential disruptions to student-teacher relationships. “Recommendation letters from teachers are extremely important and these relationships [are] extremely hard to form in a semester,” he said. “From moving forward with this proposal, those relationships are going to be disrupted.”

Other concerns raised during the meeting included the possibility of siblings cross-infecting between two cohorts and a lack of a clear plan for students taking multiple social studies or English classes simultaneously.

Conversely, community member Anais Laborde-Liu pointed out the drawbacks of distance learning and advocated for a hybrid model. “Screentime has quadrupled; kids are looking at their phones and looking elsewhere, rather than their teacher,” she said. “Teachers are considered essential workers; therefore, they should be back in school full time. If you can go to Safeway and Costco, you can go back to school.”

Superintendent Don Austin, on his part, cited the success of elementary schools’ early October return to hybrid learning—a claim Escondido elementary school teacher Elena Melendez disputed. “We have kids that are masked up [and] hiding behind plexiglass dividers at their desks,” she said. “They cannot see each other. They cannot see the board because of the glare off the Plexiglass. Only the loudest students can be heard and participate in class.”

For many of the community members opposed to the hybrid model, the decision came down to whether reopening would provide a superior educational experience. “Pandemic-induced educational struggles won’t magically subside by putting students and teachers in the same space,” Powell said. “Believing so is woefully ignorant of what good teaching and learning looks like in high school.”