It was Saturday morning, three days after the end of Winter Break, and the hope of an in-person second semester seemed to be drifting away.
The recent surge of Omicron cases had set a fog of uncertainty over the Palo Alto Unified School District. All across Palo Alto, schools, sports games and practices were being cancelled, crossing guards were not showing up and teachers and students were calling in sick.
With parents constantly asking whether schools would close, Superintendent Don Austin was struggling to find clarity.
“I really was racking my brain about how we could get to a definitive answer [about school closure],” Austin said. “My Deputy Superintendent [Trent Bahadursingh] called me early Saturday morning and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a thought. What do you think about asking parents to volunteer, to fill in some of these spots?’”
Bingo. That was it. Immediately, he went to his office and brainstormed ideas with Bahadursingh for what would later be called “1 Palo Alto,” a massive mobilization of volunteer parents that seems to have helped turn the tide for the district. Despite uncertainty and a very short timeline to organize the effort, Bahadursingh was sure the idea was going to work.
“If you look at successful schools, You will always find a common ingredient,” Bahadursingh said. “It’s the parents, and their willingness to volunteer, step up, be engaged with schools.”
Austin scheduled an impromptu meeting with PAUSD principals and PTA presidents, who raised questions about the logistics of the program, which PAUSD staff worked to organize.
“The concern was ‘How do people sign up? How do they register? What kind of tasks?’” Bahadursingh said. “‘What do you need support with? How can we help? What are the areas that you would need volunteers to help from? Then we started thinking about how do we message this out to our parents? What are the logistics? Do we send an email? Do we have to have the website on the page? How do we do this? Who do we contact? What should we be doing?’”
The key to getting all of these questions answered: communication.
“We wouldn’t have known all those things if we hadn’t asked,” Austin said. “We asked food services, ‘Where do you need the help?’ We thought it was in food preparation. We were wrong. They said, ‘No, if the volunteers can help us with the setup and in the cashier, that allows our food service team to do the food prep.’ So by asking questions, we got to better solutions.”
After discussions with school principals, PTA members and PAUSD staff, “1 Palo Alto” was launched at 9:11 p.m. on Sunday — just 36 hours after Bahadursingh’s initial proposal.
“Now I can tell everybody with a straight face that we’re staying open,” Austin said. “That’s all I wanted out of this.”
“If you look at successful schools, I think you will always find a common ingredient. It’s the parents, and their willingness to volunteer, step up, be engaged with schools.”
— Trent Bahadursingh, PAUSD deputy superintendent
As of 5:06 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan 12, nearly 800 parents have volunteered for tasks such as assisting at the COVID Testing Clinic, wiping down desks at the end of the day, or attending to classroom needs. This effort to support the community has provided light on this time of uncertainty.
“It can be seen as a really uplifting reflection that we trust our parents to come in and be aid and support in this time of need,” said Alyssa Bond, who teaches dance and Living Skills at Palo Alto High School.
Motivated by the superintendent’s video, Sarah Wieckowski, mother of Paly junior Madelyn Castro and Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School 8th grader Parker Castro signed up to help staff the COVID Clinic next week.
“I feel excited to participate,” Wieckowski said. “I am looking forward to the possibility of seeing my children and their friends while I am on campus.”
Opportunities available through “1 Palo Alto” also extend to high school students, who can earn service hours by volunteering for appropriate roles that do not conflict with their schedules. Madelyn Castro said she shares her mother’s enthusiasm for this volunteer opportunity.
“As long as it’s not adding more of a likelihood of COVID, I think that I would love to volunteer to help out because I really enjoy this school and I think it would be a good opportunity to help,” Castro said.
Although some members of the PAUSD community have voiced concerns regarding the risks associated with closing schools, many commend Austin’s efforts to involve parents at school.
“1 Palo Alto is a great idea,” Wieckowski said. “It gives parents the opportunity to support the schools during this challenging time.”
With the community’s help, Austin aims to keep schools from closing once again.
“We will not close,” Austin said. “I have parents that want me to close [schools]. Not only is it not allowed right now by the state, but I saw as clearly as anybody else. I’ve heard from students and teachers and everybody else, what the closures did to them. We are not closing ever.”