PAUSD releases results of online learning survey

Madison Abbassi, Senior Staff Writer

School board members are discussing the results of a Palo Alto Unified School District online learning survey released last week as they finalize their plans for fall 2021. The survey, administered in February, gathered responses from 4,610 parents, 1,449 students in grades 6-12, and 983 staff members regarding their experiences with online learning and their hopes for in-person instruction in the fall.

According to the survey results, online learning over the past year has presented students with a host of new challenges. The top three activities that PAUSD students missed were “seeing and being with their friends,” “being able to get out of the house,” and “interactions with teachers.” 

Junior Harin Kim agreed that communication with teachers has been more difficult in the virtual setting. “I feel like [distance learning] is harder, especially in my math and science classes,” Kim said. “For math, I want to ask the teacher lots of questions, but I can’t really do that this year.”

This experience was also shared by junior Anisha Gandhi, who said that interacting with teachers had been difficult for her online.

Survey results published last week included graphical comparisons of responses among Palo Alto Unified School District parents, students, and staff. “I found a lot of them [the results] fascinating,” School Board trustee Jennifer DiBrienza said. “Especially to separate out the parents, the students, and the staff — I think it gives us a different view.” Photo: Madison Abbassi.
“It’s definitely harder to make a connection with your teachers,” Gandhi said. “Sometimes you don’t have the energy to try to do that over Zoom, and sometimes it feels like the teachers don’t have the energy either.”

Furthermore, 65.4% of students responded that they had not been on a PAUSD campus since March 2020, and 41.4% were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that they had fallen behind academically over virtual learning.

Concerns were raised over these results at the school board meeting on April 20. Former City Council candidate Rebecca Eisenberg expressed her worry that high school students were missing key rites of passage. “Their [students’] lives have no fun in them, they can’t have prom,” she said. “It’s terrible.”

However, some student responses indicated that online learning had come with its benefits. Students enjoyed “shorter school days,” “increased independence or autonomy,” and “improved sleep,” with approximately half of students reporting that the quality of their education over virtual learning had been generally “good” or “excellent.”

School Board trustee Jennifer DiBrienza expressed her support for continuing shorter school days at the board meeting. “The fact that fewer instructional minutes can get our kids more sleep and can make kids feel like [instruction] is a more appropriate length for their school day seems like a wonderful silver lining during a very miserable year,” she said.

DiBrienza also emphasized the importance of considering the survey results as the board finalized fall schedules. “I really hope that we have a little bit of leeway when we’re making our new bell schedule so that we hopefully don’t have to go back up to the full minutes,” she said. “I think that we really have to keep that in mind.”

Not all attendees of the board meeting agreed with DiBrienza. Eisenberg said she was concerned that fewer instructional minutes could have negative consequences.

“A question I’d like for you to investigate is whether these shorter instructional minutes have led to more homework, which I think they might,” Eisenberg stated during public comment.

The students’ majority approval of virtual education was echoed by staff members: a whopping 73.69% ranked its quality as “good” or “excellent.”

Despite their positive views of online learning, the majority of staff members indicated that they believed a return to in-person schooling in the fall would be the most beneficial option for their students. In contrast, 33.51% of staff ranked hybrid or full distance as their first choice.

Many families are also eager to go back to the classroom —  82.28% of surveyed parents reported that they would prefer a full return to in-person by fall. Parents said they observed that their children had been especially missing “interactions with teachers,” “participating in team activities,” and “group projects” over virtual learning.

Over the next few months, the district will continue finalizing its fall plans given the community input from the PAUSD survey.