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Parents, Teachers Divided Over Reopening Palo Alto School Classrooms

PALO ALTO (KPIX 5) -- Palo Alto Unified School District is set to vote next week on a plan to resume in-person instruction and could begin moving students back into the classroom as early as next month.

During a virtual board meeting Tuesday, more than 100 parents and teachers voiced their concerns in a meeting that stretched for hours late into the night.

According to Superintendent Don Austin, the plan would be a phased-in approach with special-education students returning Monday. Transitional kindergarten through first grade will return two weeks after that on Oct. 12. Second- and third-graders will return Oct. 26. Fourth- and fifth-graders return Nov. 9. Middle and high school students will return Jan.7.

Parents who wish to continue with online distance learning may continue to do so.

"Our families across the state are not equally resourced. They're not equally educated at home. They don't all have the same connectivity. We have families that are food challenged. We have families that are having emotional issues at home. We need to be open for students schools were built for students to be served in person," Austin said.

Each class will be divided into two cohorts to allow for proper social distancing. Each cohort will attend class for 2 1/2 days a week then stay home for 2 1/2 "asynchronous days" with no teacher instruction. During that time, the second cohort will rotate into the classroom for the remainder of the week.

"It seems to be the plan that's winning the day across the state," Austin said. "There is no plan out there that is earning fans across the state, we're all trying to navigate uncharted waters. There is some calibration among districts and, I think, this is going to be the common plan."

During the Tuesday meeting, the district revealed results of a parent survey that showed 62% favor in-person classes. The respondents were comprised of 2,600 elementary school parents.

However, the Palo Alto Educators Association also released results of their own survey that indicated 82% of special-education teachers and 83% of elementary school teachers were "not comfortable" with in-person classes.

Union president Teri Baldwin said the board was "unmoved" upon learning of their survey results.

"It feels rushed," Baldwin said. "It just isn't safe to reopen right now. The health and safety of students and educators and the community is of utmost importance to us and we just don't feel the lives of our students and educators are expendable."

PAEA is in talks with the district to increase the frequency of COVID-19 testing to take place every week. Currently, the district is offering testing to teachers every two weeks. Superintendent Austin said there are 40,000 masks in their supply.

During previous discussions, the district selected Oct. 12 as the target date for beginning in-person instruction. The union negotiated the impacts on teachers' working conditions. Baldwin said the union will honor the agreement but will return to work in the classroom with added stress and worry.

Baldwin brushed aside any notion of an employee no-show.

"Teachers are professionals and they'll show up. They'll be doing it with a lot of anxiety and I hate to see that but they will show up. We will have to just keep speaking out against this and explain that we don't want this to happen," Baldwin said.

"I would say that I understand there are concerns and apprehension," Austin said. "We are trying to remove every barrier within reason, with the understanding that we can do all of that and some people will still be uncomfortable."

Jane Kirk, a parent with three children from T-K to sixth grade says she feels safe sending her kids back to school but understands the teachers' concerns.

"I guess I just feel like, at this point, I trust the county health department and the state. If we're not going to trust them now when are we ever going to be able to move forward to get our kids back to school?" Kirk said.

The Palo Alto School Board will vote on the return to in-person instruction plan during the next meeting Sept. 29.

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