Austin rallies volunteer army to keep schools open

Jeffrey Tu and Payton Anderson

Despite cases surging over the past week and an expected increase in the coming weeks, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin affirms that schools will not close. In an email to The Paly Voice, he stated that he understood a hybrid or distanced learning model is prohibited by California Law. In his video speech, Austin compared the current situation to the play “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which he said inspired his recent decision. “In the end, George Bailey needed the help of the entire community to help him to survive, and they did, epically,” Austin said. “Well, Bedford Falls, it’s that time and we need you.” (Photo: Jeffrey Tu)

Schools will depend on a legion of volunteers to work on the front lines to remain open through surging COVID-19 cases, Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Don Austin announced in an emotional video message on Sunday. 

After a weekend of virtual meetings with principals, administrators, and PTA parents, Austin confirmed that schools will stay open unless prompted by an outside authority, such as the county health department. Considering the year-and-a-half students spent learning online, PAUSD’s values in education, and students’ academic drive, Austin said he made the ultimate decision not to shut down schools.

In his video, he described “1 Palo Alto,” a new plan to summon volunteers from the community to solve the shortages. He referenced a play he said he watched prior to the pandemic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and compared its plot to the current pandemic. 

“Bedford Falls, it’s that time and we need you,” the superintendent said. He added that the staffing shortage is a leading issue at the forefront of the list of pandemic-related issues.

According to the PAUSD website, volunteers would fill roles around the community including supporting testing sites, food services, keeping surfaces wiped down, helping in offices, supervising students, and supporting classrooms. Austin said he hopes community members will flood volunteer roles and fill shortages.

“Until the surge passes, we need our community,  ‘1 Palo Alto’, to volunteer like never before,” Austin said. “This is the chance for our community to be a really important part of that concept of service to others.”

Although PAUSD has taken measures to keep schools open, like creating on-campus testing centers and enforcing a five-day self-isolation after a positive test, COVID-19 and its Omicron variant still pose other threats to schools. 

Junior Wesley Gan said he recognizes the effort PAUSD members are putting in to keep schools open through frequent testing and COVID-safety precautions, but Gan said it is still worrisome to attend school when the risk of COVID-19 is present. 

“There are some classes where you’re starting to miss a lot of students just because of COVID and this rise of cases and a possible exposure if you have it, which then makes it kind of difficult for these students to get the proper education they need because they’re not able to be physically in the classroom,” Gan said.

Moreover, many students are still wary of the rise in cases in the community. Junior Julien Chow said he was worried about a lack of testing before he returned to school.

Cases are now at an overall all-time high, according to the Santa Clara Department of Public Health, with a seven-day average of 2,123 new cases. Chow said these numbers have led him to wonder why PAUSD did not decide to test students before school started after winter break.

“It [testing regularly] is something that we should have done before school started and kept those people who tested positive [at home],” Chow said. “If not then we could just have gone to Zoom for two weeks, even though it’s not ideal.”