Admin applauds campus return, eager for more students

Tara Kapoor and Andy Robinson

Palo Alto High School Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson observes students eating during lunch break to ensure that those on campus follow safety protocols. Berkson said that the administration is unable to anticipate when the number of students returning to campus will change but predicts that the number will increase over the next few weeks. “I think it’s going to be based on the current students who are here, what they think … and then word is going to spread one direction or the other,” Berkson said. “If I had to guess I would bet on the numbers increasing, but I could [also] see a pullback of 20%.” Photo: Daniel Garepis-Holland.

Back to whizzing around campus on his notorious golf cart after a year of distance-learning, Palo Alto High School Assistant Principal Jerry Berkson can once again share joking comments with students — albeit now, behind a mask.

“I’ve been using my magical fingers to get people to spread apart,” Berkson said, laughing and moving his open hands around in small circles. “Sarcasm is hard through masks.”

After a relatively successful first few days back on campus, the Paly administration is optimistic about the hybrid reopening that has taken effect this week.

The pandemic has had varying effects on students’ mental health, according to Berkson, but he said the new campus opportunities for socialization between students have been undoubtedly beneficial.

“I think people yearn for socialization,” Berkson said. “And even for me, especially when it first started, there could be someone walking their dog outside who I didn’t know. And I would still go outside, just because it’s like, ‘Oh, a human!’”

Teachers have expressed mixed views on the return to campus policy. Although certain classrooms may be empty of students during various periods throughout the day, Berkson said teachers will be required to attend school each day regardless of attendance signups beforehand.

“You never know who is going to show up, and if students don’t show up you’re not at risk,” Berkson said. “Every person has a different comfort level about the whole thing. … There are some teachers who are reluctant to come to campus. I think the longer they’re here, more will be [comfortable].”

Many teachers are in various stages of the vaccination process. Berkson said he was set to receive his second vaccine shot Thursday.

The first few days progressed with relatively few glitches, Berkson said. A couple of mishaps occurred with athletes attending school on the incorrect alphabetical grouping day due to after-school practices, and a handful of students arrived on-campus without their parents signing them in beforehand, but the process overwhelmingly ran without hiccups, according to Berkson.

A few reminders were given to students asking them to socially distance, according to Berkson, though he said that it was expected given the desire of many students to reconnect with others after a year of stay-at-home orders. Students did a “really good job” overall, Berkson said.

“I think it’s natural [to incidentally move close to others], especially, I think people are dying to talk to people,” Berkson said. “You naturally move closer through space and need to be reminded, but it was actually really darn good.”

Berkson said he ultimately believes that the reopening of Paly has had a net positive impact on the well-being of returning students. Activities on campus include socially distanced ping pong and lunch out on the Quad. Berkson said he expects more students to return — particularly seniors — progressively over this semester, especially if cases and virus spread remain low.

“I hope students will give it [on-campus school] a try,” Berkson said. “Because the students I talked to, even especially the ones from the cohorts that came back early, they’re really happy they did it.”