Parents applaud sixth grade return to campus

Ryan Lee and Tara Kapoor

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Many parents say they look forward to their children receiving an in-person middle school experience, from classroom teaching away from a screen to learning to bike to campus independently. Following mounting pressure from parents, the Palo Alto Unified School District announced last week that sixth grade will reopen in March with permitting county guidelines. Safety regulations outlined by the district in addition to their success in maintaining safe in-person cohorts for elementary school students helped to alleviate health concerns, according to Greene Middle School parent Jenny Dixon. “I think the district has shown they can do it successfully in the elementary school,” Dixon said. “They’re just doing a really good job with all of the cleaning and health screening. The PP, the smaller classrooms, the air purifiers … we’ve just shown that it can be done safely.” Graphic: Kabir Advani

Juggling seven classes while scrambling across an unexplored campus, biking across town to school, and meeting a new circle of friends are just a few aspects of in-person sixth grade that many parents are eager for their children to experience as first-year middle school students.

In a special Palo Alto Unified School District school board meeting on Feb. 2, Superintendent Don Austin announced district plans to bring sixth grade students on campus as early as March 1 for in-person learning. Grades seven through 12 may also be returning to school relatively soon, Austin said at the following board meeting Tuesday night.

“Sixth grade is now eligible to return once the county COVID rates are less than 25 per 100,000 for five consecutive days,” Austin said. “That happened this week.”

Elizabeth Garr, a Palo Alto parent who pulled both of her students out of the district at the start of the school year due to the district’s decision to not offer in-person learning, said Austin’s recent announcement is reassuring; she plans to return her two students to the PAUSD system next academic year.

“It [Austin’s announcement] gives me a lot of hope,” Garr said. “We’re just really crossing our fingers that the schools will be open, fully with five days a week in-person learning, because it seems like that should be doable given that vaccines are here.”

While Garr notes teachers and parents’ concern about returning despite growing COVID-19 cases, she thinks that it is time to put students first.

“Health experts are saying that there’s so few cases,” Garr said. “If you can do it [in-person schooling] safely, then I just think it’s such a much better learning experience for the kids to be taught in school than having to sit at home in front of the computer. So I think we really have to think about it from the students, put the students first in this whole situation.

As parents gear up to send their new middle schoolers to campus, many say that the return fulfills more than just academic needs. Greene Middle School parent Jenni Bittinger said that although she feels online learning has not hindered her daughter’s learning experience, returning to in-person school would be socially beneficial.

“I feel sixth grade is important for socializing,” Bittinger said. “It’s so different from elementary, you have to move from class-to-class. It’s also a longer distance away from her elementary school so that’s also another learning skill, biking from our home to Greene safely, carefully, consistently.”

Some students may not return to campus in March, nonetheless. Greene parent Shirley Stonich said it is “a very difficult decision” between in-person and distance. Stonich said that she feels face-to-face in-person learning with teachers would be more beneficial for her sixth grade daughter’s education, in addition to expanding her social circle.

“When it’s online and you don’t really know anyone, it’s kind of hard to establish that type of connection with anyone, even with teachers,” Stonich said.

Yet, given the major adjustment her sixth grader made for distance learning, Stonich said the transition mid-semester back to in-person school would be difficult, and her daughter will continue online for the remainder of the semester.

“It’s been an adjustment for the first semester for her, but we’ve finally gotten her into a groove and she’s actually managed to maintain her grades and now she’s in a better place,” Stonich said. “Even though she was looking forward to it [in-person school] initially, I think now she’s gotten used to the schedule … for her it’s the right decision to stay distance learning.”

To protect teacher safety, many parents also said they would support allowing teachers the option to stay home.

“It’s not selfish to want to protect themselves and their families,” Bittinger said. “I would definitely advocate for the push for teachers to get vaccines ahead of certain other demographics.”

Angela Wong, a PAUSD parent and family medicine doctor, said constant testing and strong safety protocols may calm many teacher and parent concerns.

“I think testing, ideally, should be part of the safety protocol,” Wong said. “I feel like for the comfort of the teachers, I feel that it would provide a lot of security if there was regular testing, of ideally both students and teachers.”

Manju Tamura, Greene parent and professor of medicine at Stanford University shares a similar sentiment, stating that she hopes the district can move swiftly to provide a plan for in-person education that maintains safety.

“I hope district leaders are prepared to move quickly when the [CDC] guidance is issued to present a plan for our schools to not just re-open, but to safely remain open during this pandemic,” Tamura wrote to The Paly Voice. “As a parent in the district, I support the safe re-opening of in-person school for instruction for our sixth graders (and for seventh to 12th graders) — 100%.”