After a year of online classes, Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) schools are reopening at full capacity, welcoming new and familiar faces back to the hustle and bustle of in-person school. Students will return to campus, experiencing the many changes made to the 2021-2022 school year compared to previous years—notably, adjustments to the safety protocols, bell schedule and learning options.
Updated safety protocols:
Back in February, when campuses first opened to PAUSD students, safety protocols on campus were strict: six feet of social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, daily screenings and more. In this upcoming school year, however, safety protocols have been reduced to just indoor mandatory masks. “Whatever the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Santa Clara County tell us is mandatory, so we mirror it,” PAUSD Superintendent Don Austin said. “Some school districts started making up their own rules. We never did that. We follow the CDC and county explicitly.”
Safety protocols encouraged by public health officials remain essential to ensure the safety of everyone on campus, especially as COVID-19 cases are back on the rise. “We’re ensuring that everyone is masked indoors,” Assistant Principal Leonel Argumedo said. “Outdoors, it is optional, but PAUSD highly encourages that everyone remains masked whenever possible … [and] that people maintain a safe distance when they’re socializing or eating.”
Despite the relaxation of safety measures in various communities, COVID-19 remains prevalent in most areas. According to The New York Times, an average of 295 COVID-19 cases are reported in Santa Clara County daily, more than double the amount reported in March 2021, when PAUSD in-person instruction first resumed. With the increasing presence of the Delta variant, vaccinations are imperative for all populations.
For youth eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine who are attending in-person learning, vaccination is especially important; without it, the risk of putting themselves as well as others in danger increases significantly. According to the CDC, vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic in K-12 schools. “Promoting [it] can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports,” the CDC wrote.
Although vaccinations are not legally mandated, over 80% of the county is vaccinated, according to the Santa Clara Public Health website. Furthermore, most district employees have received their respective doses. “As it stands, we’re over 95% [vaccinated],”
Austin said. “If the state says K-12 schools need to have all employees vaccinated, then we’ll work through it.” Thus far, the safety protocols set in place have proven effective despite the increase in cases. Throughout the summer, over 600 students simultaneously attended summer school on campus—three times the number of people that had previously taken classes in-person in the spring. Assistant Principal Courtney Carlomagno, who also served as a summer school principal, observed the efficiency of current safety protocols. “Students really did great with the masks and wore them all the time indoors,” Carlomagno said. “Classrooms were very much operating and looked just like previous school years. The only difference was that students and staff wore masks indoors. The best part is that we had in-person instruction for six weeks and [had] zero COVID-19 cases.”
Bell schedule changes:
The new bell schedule, announced early this year, is another change this year. Following a modified A/B format, classes will meet every other day. On Mondays, or anchor days, all classes will meet for 45-minute periods. On “A” days—Tuesdays and Thursdays—students will attend their first throughfourth period classes. On “B” days—Wednesdays and Fridays—students will attend their fifth through seventh period classes. After seventh period, Titans will attend Personal Reteaching, Intervention, Mentorship and Enrichment period (PRIME) on Wednesdays and Social Emotional Learning and Functionality (SELF) on Fridays.
PRIME will be a period where students can choose what activities they want to attend depending on the week. For instance, on a given week, students will be given the choice of checking in with one of their teachers or attending a wellness activity. On a different week, students will be given a different selection of activities to choose from. “PRIME lends itself to this notion of having a variety of uses,” Principal Wendy Stratton said. “Primarily, we’re looking at it as an academic support time with targeted support. It is a sort of reteaching opportunity where students won’t see brand new content and won’t be held accountable academically.”
Another change to the 2021-22 bell schedule is the implementation of a later start and finish time. While classes meet at 9 a.m., they will usually finish anywhere from 3:30 p.m. to 4:10 p.m. depending on the day. “The process [leading up to the implementation of the later start time] included representation of students, parents and staff at all of the secondary level schools,” Stratton said. “It’s going to be different for everyone; we’re all going to have to adjust. We’re not really sure what the impacts will be, but I think it’ll be interesting to see what the pros and cons turn out to be.”
So far, students have had mixed opinions regarding the decision to have longer, 90-minute periods. “More class time means more work can get done, thus less of that becomes extra homework,” junior Aaron Novick said. “However, I wouldn’t want a teacher that just lectures for 90 minutes because I wouldn’t be able to focus for that long.” The administration hopes the application of longer periods will, in fact, enable more flexible teaching plans for teachers and engaging opportunities for students. “The longer periods really allow teachers to either do some out-of-the-box projects with [their] students or build in that reteaching and intervention time for all students,” Carlomagno said.
It’s going to be different for everyone; we’re all going to have to adjust. We’re not really sure what the impacts will be, but it’ll be interesting to see.
— Principal Wendy Stratton
Many have different opinions regarding the new schedule. Despite that, there is still a lot of flexibility when it comes to altering the schedule in the future. “We’ll definitely seek feedback,” Austin said. “Nothing in bell schedules is permanent.”
New learning options:
On July 20, in an email sent to all PAUSD parents and guardians, Austin introduced a new learning option available to all PAUSD students: the Remote Independent Study program (RIS). Slated to operate as soon as school starts, the program provides an alternative to in-person learning for students who otherwise can’t attend classes on campus and one that students can opt in to, or out of, at any time.
The alternative is primarily tailored for students with medical conditions, though students who do not feel comfortable on campus can still enroll. “The governor, president and health departments all want students back on campus,” Austin said. “That’s the default. Students who select that they’re not going to be attending classes in-person are supposed to have medical reasons.”
Contrary to distance learning this past year, PAUSD teachers will not be instructing the students enrolled in the RIS program. Rather, non-PAUSD educators on K12 Stride will be teaching the classes. “We want our teachers to be teaching students in-person,” Austin said. “What we can’t have is another year of dividing our teachers. For students that really need to have a remote option, it will be provided.”
Moreover, compared to the distance learning option all PAUSD students had last year, the independent study program will have significantly fewer synchronous meetings and course options. “If people think that selecting distance learning is going to look like last year, they’ll be very disappointed,” Austin said. “It’s not going to be like that at all.”
While the program meets all baseline requirements, various honors, AP, elective and sports classes will not be taught by K12 Stride. “This is a district that has high level classroom instruction with a lot of options for courses,” Austin said. “We can’t replicate either of those two things through a thirdparty distance program. It would be more of a minimum-level program.”
This raises equity concerns that students with medical conditions will not have the same access to education as other PAUSD students. “Right now, with the offerings that are being created through the partnership with an outside vendor, the district will do everything they can to make sure services are provided to the students and that their needs are met,” Carlomagno said. “For students who have more documented needs, we will continue to provide the additional services through different departments.”
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