Schoolwide survey shows students conflicted on reopening

Tara Kapoor and Ryan Lee

Parents protest outside of the Palo Alto Unified School District office last month demanding reopening of schools for student education, mental health and normalcy. After Santa Clara County gave the go-ahead for an in-person return for grades 7-12 once the county enters the red tier, PAUSD secondary reopening preparations launched once again. While some students are hesitant about safety and feel online class from the classroom will not be beneficial, nearly half of students surveyed plan to return immediately. “I would like to try it out and see if it’s a model that works for me,” School Board Representative and Paly senior Medha Atla said. “Open campus would be really nice, but I understand that safety comes first. In an ideal world, everybody would be vaccinated and/or we wouldn’t have a lot of exposure.” Photo: Daniel Garepis-Holland.

Despite mounting parent pressure for an in-person experience, students appear to have mixed views on whether to return to in-person learning with the newly announced plan for Palo Alto Unified School District secondary schools. 

According to Palo Alto High School Principal Brent Kline, last week’s non-binding survey of Paly families on in-person reopening showed that 43% of students surveyed plan to return to campus immediately, while 24% plan to return eventually and 32% plan to remain in distance learning for the remainder of the school year. The results stem from 1,143 of the approximately 2,100 students at Paly.

On a grade-wide basis, the split is roughly equal, with 27% of freshmen and sophomores planning to return, 25% of juniors and 20% of seniors.

“I anticipate that we will have an average of about 400 students on campus in both groups (Tues/Wed & Thurs/Fri),” Kline stated in a message Wednesday to The Paly Voice.  “When you start breaking this down by classrooms, a class of 28 total students will have around five to six students attending in person each day.”

An update from Santa Clara County on Tuesday removed the five-day requirement in red tier before reopening, allowing for potential reopening of secondary schools earlier than the planned March 9.

Many students are excited to return to in-person learning and interact with peers and teachers, even though classes will continue via Zoom to preserve student schedules and allow the same teaching for students in-person and at home. Junior Diana Narancic said that while online school has been a “nice” change, she is ready to return to “normal” school.

“I miss being in school,” Narancic said. “I miss seeing my friends and teachers. I would call myself a hands-on learner, and it helps me to learn the material if I can ask my teachers lots of questions and be able to speak with them after class if I didn’t understand something.”

Senior Emma Lin, who is currently participating in an on-campus cohort, said she has enjoyed her experience thus far and feels it has increased her productivity. However, Lin said she is less comfortable with the school-wide reopening plan.

“I may decide to stop coming to school when the new plan happens,” Lin said. “I think the new schedule will make coming to school less flexible and more risky, and I’m a little concerned about safety during passing periods and lunch.”

Other students are also wary of safety risks due to potential COVID-19 exposure.

“I am not going to return back to school,” freshman Neel Sharma said, despite missing the on-campus experience of his first year of high school. “I don’t want to put my family at risk or in a bad situation.”

In addition to safety concerns, the continuation of Zoom learning is deterring some students from traveling to campus, feeling the reopening plan will not be beneficial for their education.

“I think it’s redundant for people to return, simply to Zoom from school,” sophomore Kylie Tzeng said. “In terms of making responses [changes to the current reopening plan] so I’d actually want to return is changing the cohorts and making it hands-on learning rather than distance learning.”

Sharing a similar viewpoint, senior Aleksandra Lyubarskaja said she may attend school in-person occasionally to increase “human contact in whatever way is possible.”

“Being mandated to stay there for the entire day seems weird to me,” Lyubarskaja. “Why would I go to some classes if it increases COVID exposure and I don’t feel physical presence increases anything academically?”

As the reopening plan allows students to decide whether to attend in-person on a day-to-day basis, some students plan to do just that.

“I think for some of my classes, it’d be nice to be there in person and would help me learn better,” junior Sophie Shand said. “Physically going to school would help break some of the monotony of online school. But of course I’m still worried about putting myself, my family, my peers, and my teachers at risk by going back.”

Junior Diego Diaz said that he likely will not return to campus immediately in order to prevent endangering his family with COVID-19. While Diaz said he thinks the new plan may be like “online school but in a classroom” without much educational positive, he may return to campus later on.

When everything is hopefully back to normal and we (students, parents, and teachers) feel safe, that’s when I would most likely come back,” Diaz said. “I’m honestly just looking forward to having a classroom environment again and seeing teachers and friends again.”

Additional reporting by Maia Johnsson.