In the room where it happens: Recent criticism around PAUSD’s decision-making process speaks to the need for effective communication when managing a public health crisis.
December 17, 2020
For weeks, virtual classrooms buzzed with both worry and excitement about reopening elementary schools for in-person learning. On Sept. 29, hordes of students, parents and teachers alike powered on their Zoom applications to tune into a virtual Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) school board meeting, patiently waiting to hear the board’s discussion around the reopening plan for elementary schools. During the open forum session—a designated time for community members to freely share opinions—voice after voice pleaded with the five school board members to delay their decision until a better plan had been set. Yet after an hour of speeches, the school board members unanimously voted to reopen elementary schools, leaving many attendees confused, outraged and upset.
The controversial decision followed the previous board meeting just seven days earlier, on Sept. 22. Throughout the meeting, which was scheduled from 6 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., the school board assured the public that they would not decide on elementary school reopenings that night, allowing community members to voice their worries without the pressure of an immediate decision. At 11 p.m., however, and following an extension of the meeting, Board Member Ken Dauber called to vote on the reopening plan immediately, a move decried—among others—by an editorial written by members of The Oracle staff (the independent opinions of the writers are kept separate from The Oracle’s news coverage).
Dauber, in a later interview, defended his motion for an immediate vote because he didn’t want the community to unnecessarily wait for what he saw as a clear-cut decision. “It was clear to me that the board was going to support the reopening plan,” Dauber said in a Nov. 18 interview. “There was no real suspense about how [the decision] was going to turn out. It was just a question of timing. And at that point, it was just delayed for no good purpose.”
Despite the motion being subsequently denied by three other members, such an action accompanies others by the school board that have increasingly come under fire. In recent days, many parents, students and staff have begun to rally for clearer communication and transparency from both the school board and the district, especially when it comes to pandemic-related decisions. While previously approved reopening plans for high schools are unlikely to proceed given Santa Clara County’s recent move into the purple tier of coronavirus precautionary measures, the question of transparency still stands as the district plans for future reopenings.
Communication during a crisis
On Feb. 28, during a campaign rally in South Carolina, President Donald Trump labelled the Democratic Party’s criticism of how he had handled the coronavirus as the party’s “new hoax.” Buying into the now-twisted idea that the virus itself is a hoax—and throwing caution to the wind over the virus—has proved deadly: the United States currently leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths, with over 12 million cases and 250,000 deaths, as of late November.
In the digital age of the 21st century, it comes as no surprise that to manage a public health crisis means to simultaneously also manage a public information crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) cites communication as “the most important available tool in managing a risk” such as the current pandemic, especially in providing advice and guidance for the people who may be affected. One primary example of failure to manage a health crisis was during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic in 2003, when authorities’ delayed acknowledgment of the outbreak’s severity led to the rapid global spread of the SARS virus. According to WHO, the eventual containment of the disease was only made possible due to “public awareness, community surveillance and behavior modification—all of which was directly supported by a massive international public health information effort.”
Throughout the pandemic’s activity in America, however, the Trump administration has been accused by experts of downplaying both the severity of the virus and its impact on the infected. With the Trump administration failing to respond to COVID-19 as a legitimate threat, the pandemic has become political in nature, making it difficult for national and international health organizations such as the CDC and the WHO to effectively advise on necessary precautions.
In turn, the burden of public health has fallen onto the shoulders of state and county officials. Santa Clara County, for example, was one of the first counties in the nation to issue a shelter-in-place order in March, and Santa Clara Public Health Director Sara Cody has been awarded Momentum Health’s 2020 Shining Stars Award of Excellence for the Santa Clara team’s quick response and subsequent information releases.
The decisions made at the county level trickle down to the city school board level. In October, with elementary schools under staggered reopening plans, PAUSD shifted attention to reopening middle and high schools for the second semester. The iterations of reopening plans, however, have been complex and erratic. The possibility of livestreaming was suggested, then pulled off the table. In the very earliest stages of planning, all seven of a student’s classes could be held in-person, while later plans called for only English and social studies classes to return on campus. Such a series of changes left many families unsure and unready to make a binding decision—and speak to the importance of communication and transparency, even at the local level.
Transparency at PAUSD
The district, for its part, has put measures in place to communicate information to the people. Superintendent Don Austin sends informational emails to parents every Friday. Many updates have also been posted to the district page, as well as Austin’s Twitter account. The school board members check their emails often, and a running list of coronavirus cases from elementary schools is available online.
Such communication measures are only part of the district’s responsibility to provide transparent information to the community. Dauber believes that the school board has an obligation to communicate to its constituents, especially during a time when plans can change within days. “The board has an obligation to be transparent in terms of ensuring that the board meetings are open, that the public has a clear understanding about why the board makes their decisions [and] that there’s an opportunity for the public to participate in the decision-making process,” Dauber said. “I think during the coronavirus [pandemic], a lot is changing in how students are getting their education, so I think that it’s even more important to double-down on opportunities for participation and communication.”
English teacher Kate Zavack described her ideal of transparent communication as timely, accurate and being done in good faith. “The goal is to tell the truth,” she said. “Of course, there are things that are sensitive material that can’t be fully disclosed. But to the extent that it can be, that it is and that things aren’t mischaracterized and misrepresented, especially on purpose.”
According to board policy, the district’s standard procedure for decision-making, first and foremost, requires identifying a problem. Following this, the Superintendent or a designated board member researches and collects data on the problem, as well as possible solutions. The board then allows community members to give their input on the issue during public meetings. Finally, the policy is drafted and presented at a subsequent meeting, after which it is voted on by the board.
On Nov. 10, the school board unanimously agreed to reopen secondary schools despite an hours-long open forum with students, parents and staff strongly cautioning against it, leading to a whirlwind of reactions. While some applauded the board for allowing struggling students to return in-person, many others were upset by the outcome of the meeting. Out of over 50 people who spoke at the board meeting’s open forum, only two supported the reopening plan. Regardless, given the current purple tier, reopening is unlikely to occur.
As both a parent and a biology teacher, Maria Powell felt that the board and the district has not listened to her perspective over the years. “I was dismissed at every opportunity,” she said. “I’ve spoken at board meetings. I’ve spoken to superintendents. I’ve spoken with the principals. As a parent, I was treated like what I had to say was wrong. I was just totally dismissed.”
School Board Representative senior Thomas Li believes that much of the conflict could be resolved if the board could effectively communicate their rationale for reopening to the public. “Taking the time to directly address and respond to the concerns that the committee has brought up, or explaining the rationale behind their vote would be a good step for transparency for the board in terms of helping the public understand why they’re making these decisions,” Li said.
Part of the outrage also stems from the district’s portrayal of the many negotiations that often happen behind closed doors. “I think one thing that’s been routinely frustrating for teachers is the way negotiations have been characterized between the [teacher’s] union and the district,” Zavack said. “Teachers’ involvement and planning have also been mischaracterized, regarding when people have been consulted or not.”
During the Nov. 10 board meeting, Board Member Melissa Baten Caswell proposed an amendment that would require district staff to actively incorporate feedback from teachers into their reopening plan, which was rejected by Dauber and Board President Todd Collins. To Dauber, this amendment created an unnecessary obstacle to the reopening plan. “While I think it’s really important for teachers to have a chance to give feedback, I don’t think it’s necessary for us for the district to reach an agreement with teachers about how schools are going to reopen,” Dauber said. “There’s a whole range of things that the district is required to reach an agreement with teachers about, but this isn’t one of them.”
A later proposed amendment, giving teachers an opportunity to provide input for consideration, was unanimously agreed upon by the board, including Dauber and Collins. Unlike the first proposed amendment, which promised action, this amendment promised listening. “That was perfectly fine,” Dauber said. “I think that’s what we should be doing. I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t putting ourselves in a position where there had to be some outcome of that feedback, because I think that was just going to create more of a burden than we needed.”
Though the district is not required to reach a consensus with teachers regarding reopening, many teachers had concerns about the feedback survey provided instead. According to Powell, the survey was administered around 6 p.m. and open for 24 hours, while the following board meeting was scheduled for 3 p.m. the next day. “Many teachers have back-to-back classes,” Powell said. “When are we supposed to collect our thoughts about the survey when we didn’t get it until six o’clock at night? It looks like transparency; it looks like the board has gotten input from teachers. But it’s not an effective system.”
Li has assured community members that the board harbors good intentions, contrary to how many people perceive their actions. “To a lot of people, it looks like the board kind of just brushed these concerns aside and approved the plan anyway,” Li said. “But I know that the board isn’t nefariously ignoring people. Some of the board members mentioned that they’ve gotten emails from families who thanked them for voting for the reopening plan. They probably know students who are struggling with distance learning. So there are two sides to the story.”
School board representatives also meet with the superintendent before every board meeting to briefly discuss agenda items, which helps with communication as school board representatives can more easily relay that information to the students. “I meet with both of them before every board meeting, so I have my own personal meetings with them,” Austin said. “They send me emails on the side and between meetings as well.”
The representatives, according to Li, rarely receive email replies. “We’re not included too much in district decisions,” Li said. “Over the summer, [Palo Alto High School Board Representative Mehta Atla] and I sent an email to the district asking how we can be involved in the school reopening discussion, and we never got a reply; I sent them an email a couple of days ago, asking about school reopening, and they also never got back to me.”
Open letters and open forums
Shortly after the school board meeting on Nov. 10, an open letter urging the board to reconsider reopening plans was written and signed by the majority of the English, social studies and special education departments from Gunn, indicating the widespread backlash the district and board received from the community. Paly students also wrote an open letter, gaining almost 700 signatures from students, parents, staff, community members and alumni.
Austin likened the staff response, including the open letter, to that of the elementary school teachers, both acknowledging the letter and raising a question as to how long its contents would hold true. “I am not dismissing that teachers wrote the letter and that they did that in unity,” Austin said. “However, we had almost exactly the same thing with elementary. And with a full staff, we’re back with 2,100 students and the teachers are overwhelmingly happy to stick with their students and do a great job with it.”
Open letters are one of many ways to be heard by the district and board, along with sending emails to board members and speaking out during the open forum. However, Dauber uses more than just the voices from open forums to shape his view on policies. “The emails that we receive, staff recommendations—it’s all part of the mix [of] how I’m understanding a situation,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to decide to vote with the majority of the people in an open forum. I also understand that it’s not representative of the community.”
Austin also challenged whether opinions shared in the open forum represented the entire community. “Nobody speaks at a board meeting because they’re happy with the decision that you’re getting ready to make,” he said. “They’re silent; they might send you a text message or an email to just you, but they don’t come and speak. The only people that ever speak in board meetings are overwhelmingly in opposition to whatever it is you’re proposing. In context, we have 66,000 residents. We have 20,000 parents and we have 2,000 employees. So, while 50 speakers might sound like everybody’s against something, that’s only 50 speakers.”
Moving forward, Li believes that the district can improve in the way they administer their surveys, both in question wording and publicizing the survey itself. “I think that some of the questions were worded with some sort of bias within them,” Li said. “They can improve publicity for it to get more responses so they can get a larger sample size. That’s another thing with transparency.”
Despite recent controversy, Palo Alto Educators Association President Teri Baldwin holds that there has always been a strong, healthy relationship between the district and the union. “Disagreements are part of a natural working process, rather than being an item of contention,” she said. “I continue to meet with the Superintendent monthly, and with both the Deputy Superintendent and Director of Human Resources weekly. We keep the lines of communication open, and we try to solve issues before they become big problems.”
Powell sees recent events not only as a frustrating ordeal, but also a time for growth. “I understand why [communication] is not happening as quickly as I’d like,” she said. “But I’m hopeful that, moving forward, the district can focus on fixing their communication structure, regardless of what the changing circumstances are.”