Student reps press Austin on 7-12 reopening plan

Avi Srinivasan, Senior Staff Writer

Both Student School Board representatives question Superintendent Don Austin about the potential plan for the return of grades seven through 12 during Tuesday’s virtual Board of Education meeting. 

Medha Atla, Palo Alto High School’s board representative, and Thomas Li, Gunn High School’s board representative, asked a variety of questions concerning the plan, ranging from vaccination requirements amongst staff to ensuring safety between student cohorts.

This meeting occurred soon after the Feb. 5 Superintendent Update which stated that with Santa Clara County’s Covid case rate decreasing to less than 25 per 100,000, the possibility of returning back to Red Tier and reopening middle and high Schools might happen “sooner than expected.”

Note: Below are excerpts from Tuesday’s Board Meeting that have been edited for length and clarity.

Student Cohorts

Thomas Li(TL): Are cohorts going to be based off of our classes? For instance, would I be going to my English class and doing zoom in that English room with other kids in my English class, and then next period, I would move over to the history department and take a class there? Or am I in a set a class with 30 other students [who are] a mixture of various different classes?

Don Austin(DA): If we have a hypothetical class size of 26, the maximum students who could be in person would be half of that. So we divide it in half, and it won’t be exact but let’s just call it 13. Of those 13, a percentage will choose for [a] variety of reasons not to be there. So the numbers, practically speaking, will look more like, don’t quote me on this, six, eight, [or] nine students. [This is] very much the same discussion we had when we were talking about elementary schools coming back. People thought how are we going to put 400 kids on [campus], and they figured out that it’s really going to be like, 60 [or] 70 kids. That’s what this will look like.

So there is no cohorting requirement or expectation, when [we] don’t cohort currently. I say currently because rules change all the time. But when you don’t cohort, you need six [feet] of spacing. I am hearing that there could be a different recommendation from the CDC tomorrow. When we hear more about this tomorrow that number may shrink, not grow, to more in the direction of four feet. But for the purpose of this plan, it doesn’t matter. We’ll have plenty of space to do the six feet. But, cohorting is not a component of this plan, nor does it need to be.

TL: Okay. So it sounds like I would be in the classroom with my teacher and with other students in my class. And then the teacher would be teaching at the front of the classroom. And what they’re teaching, I would just watch through the zoom window, right?

DA: That’s correct. For the first part of the class, that’s accurate.

Lunch/Passing Periods

TL: I know there were questions brought up earlier about how lunch and how passing period would work. And I know that details are still in play, and they’re still up in the air. But is there any direction you can kind of give an overall sense for what lunch or passing periods may look like?

DA: In your case, you’re at Gunn High School [which is] in the ballpark of 2000 students. No more than 1000 [students] could be there at any given day, and we know through experience and from previous polling that it could be as few as 200 or 300 students. Walking that empty campus yesterday, if it was 600 students it would feel like there was nobody there. And actually Ms.Dibrienza and I walked that campus yesterday, and it was pretty obvious that if you had 600 students there it would feel absolutely empty.

So the first thing we need to get rid of is our mental model of what a passing period or a lunch looks like in a high school. You’re used to 2000 students, [which] is just not going to be the case. So our high school staff, including our principals, will be talking about [the] same traffic flows. Again, it might be new for high schools right now, [but] we have experience doing this already and it works out.


TL: I know one of the big concerns from teachers, from a teachers perspective, is the whole vaccination thing. I know the state is not requiring that teachers be vaccinated before we return to school and the district has not required that either. But, is there any sort of vaccination plan in works for expediting teachers or how Palo Alto can help ensure that teachers do get vaccinated soon?

DA: I’m saying no. And as I’m saying no, it may sound like a smug no. It’s a really frustrated no. I have friends and colleagues in education all over the state that have already received their vaccine and they’re in their 40s. We heard [about] an employee today [who is] 30 years old and is vaccinated. I don’t know how that happened. But I know that we can’t get our own teachers [vaccinated]. And we don’t even have a schedule in our county. I wrote the first advocacy letter for teacher vaccination prioritization, it went to the governor’s office and then capital advisors took that up.

We need to keep applying pressure on that, I can’t fathom why Riverside and San Bernardino are having commercials on TV about teachers signing up. In our county, we received an email, which I sent to both associations from our county, essentially telling people not to sign up for [vaccine] slots right now in education, because it’s slowing down the process of getting through [to people who are] 65 and over.

That’s an absolute contradiction in this idea that we’re going to prioritize. Now that being said, the CDC has said and will say again tomorrow that vaccination is not a requirement to reopen schools and it can be done safely. But if there’s a vaccine and we’ve been told teachers and support staff are in group 1B, I’d sure like to see 1B get started in our own county.

TL: Final question. So I know that students are not required to get tested, but is there any way that as a district, we can provide some sort of station, or just an easy way for students to get tested because I know the current ways to get tested might not be as accessible to certain students. So I think we all know that testing is a pretty critical component of implementing this plan, especially since we haven’t [tested] for teachers. And with elementary students, maybe transmission is different for elementary students. But for people my age 16, 17, [and] 18, we’re treated like adults in terms of how Covid transmits for our age group. So I think it’d be beneficial to have some sort of testing and to get data on that to ensure that we know if students are getting tested, or getting Covid cases. So, going back to the question, is there any way that the school can provide on testing stations for students? That’s easily accessible?

DA: Yeah that’s coming to our board meeting in two weeks.

Teachers Returning

Medha Atla(MA): Teachers, they will be mandated to come in [to school] on Mar. 1 correct?

DA: Depending on our conditions. But yes it could be as early as Mar. 1.

MA: I’ve heard friends tell me that their teachers, if required to come back onto campus, they might need to go find jobs elsewhere or find other solutions to that problem. Do you think a possible solution could be having substitute teachers in place for teachers that don’t feel safe returning to campus? And I ask this because I think during open forum last time, a substitute teacher came on and asked us to utilize [the substitute teachers’] resources. So do you think there’s a possibility of us doing that?

DA: I’ll tell you this. Labor Law and contract provisions, through an interactive process for people with health conditions is really technical work, and probably not a place we want to [weigh] into just in a conversation here. But there’s a process that all staff have the ability to go through if they have underlying conditions and doctor’s letters outlining these restrictions, so we’re going to have to deal with that. I’ll tell you, though, as a reminder, we have been open for in person instruction since October. And while it might be new for the next group of teachers, I have to imagine that we have teachers watching right now saying ‘I’ve been back for four months.’ They had the same exact concerns. They’re there and they’ve done it every day. And we’ve had zero spread, zero.