Despite constraints, principal highlights students’ need for interaction and secondary reopening

Ryan Lee and Tara Kapoor

Following constantly flipping messages on second semester reopening as COVID-19 cases spiked and subsided, secondary schools plan to reopen later this spring, amid growing parent pressure for in-person experience. Photo: Ryan Wisowaty

With a drop in COVID-19 cases, parent demands for in-person learning and a foreseeable return to the state’s Red Tier, Palo Alto High School administrators are hammering out specifics for the imminent return to in-person learning.

In an interview with The Paly Voice on Wednesday, Principal Brent Kline emphasized the importance of school reopening for necessary in-person interaction between students and teachers.

“I think that we can really create opportunities for dialogue and conversation in a six-feet distance,” Kline said. “I think we’re creative people, we’ll figure it out.”

Kline, whose message to students on Feb. 17 outlined reopening details and logistics for Palo Alto Unified School District secondary schools, described the on-campus plan to split students alphabetically in two parts. Half of the students will be permitted on campus on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the other half will have the on-campus option on Thursdays and Fridays. Without cohorting, schedules and teachers will not be changed and students will travel from class to class on campus, though teaching will continue fully on Zoom. 

“[We will] create a division alphabetically that’s going to accommodate the class size,” Kline said. “You’re here for your regular school day, and so you’ll be traveling from class to class.”

As soon as Palo Alto is in the state’s Red Tier of COVID-19 cases for at least five consecutive days, schools will reopen. According to Kline, teachers will return to campus March 1, with the earliest student return date set for March 9.

Though Kline said the purpose of reopening school is to promote mental health and effective learning, in-person school comes with limitations to provide the safe education options during the pandemic. Paly will have a closed campus — preventing students from crossing Embarcadero to Town and Country Plaza — but free lunch will be provided to alleviate concerns over food options. 

“You are coming to campus because you need that interaction with your peers and teachers in a different way,” Kline said. “If you are coming to campus to go to Town and Country, that shouldn’t be our first priority.”

While administrators will enforce safety precautions — among them social distancing, masking and campus limits — it is the responsibility of students as well to follow guidelines and maintain a safe environment while participating in on-campus learning, according to Kline.

“We as a school are going to follow expectations because we want to come back to school,” Kline said. “If you can’t follow the expectations … then it’s not a choice that you should make [to come onto campus].”

Students will also be required to remain on campus for the entirety of the school day, with the exception of arriving late or leaving early for first or last period preps.

“You can’t come to school for a period and then leave and then come back for another period,” Kline said. “Your commitment needs to last all day.”

However, the choice to be on-campus is on a day-to-day basis.

“One day is not connected to the next,” Kline said. “If you don’t show up for this day, for your Monday day … that doesn’t inhibit you from coming for the next day.”

Despite previous concerns over safety, all teachers will be expected to teach from Paly classrooms. For teachers and staff who have safety concerns, Kline said that there will be a process through the Human Resources department for teachers with underlying health conditions to file requests to remain at home. 

“All teachers are expected to report back to school on March 1,” Kline said.

If a student or staff member contracts COVID-19, Kline said the school will perform contact tracing to determine school community members who were within close distance of the person who has contracted the virus and notify families accordingly for stay-at-home procedures.

Nonetheless, Kline said he is optimistic that students and teachers will adapt effectively to this new environment as they did to distance learning.

“Never estimate the power of a teacher and the knowledge teachers have, and the ability for them to try something new that is going to have a huge benefit,” Kline said.