Coming out of a recent Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education election, we congratulate incumbents Todd Collins and Jennifer DiBrienza as well as new member Jesse Fletcher Ladomirak who joined the board this fall.

We urge board members to give careful consideration to student and teacher input on future reopening plans, improve accommodations for student mental health and continue to work towards improving educational equity in the district.

Especially amidst the uncertainty brought by COVID-19, stronger communication and open dialogue between students, teachers and board members is imperative.

Hybrid learning model

As Santa Clara County has returned to the COVID-19 purple tier, Palo Alto High School will continue distance learning for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

Prior to entering the purple tier, the board unanimously approved a hybrid learning model with a return to campus scheduled in January, incorporating in-person and online learning for up to 30% of students who would return to campus in separate cohorts for their history and English classes. This plan was simply a disaster, as 95.5% of students were dissatisfied of 136 Paly students surveyed by Verde in November. 

Although the hybrid plan will not be implemented this year, Verde believes that the board disregarded concerns from students and staff about the safety of secondary schools reopening in its decision-making process.

Both student representatives on the board cast preferential votes against the hybrid plan. Additionally, teachers in the Palo Alto Educators Association as well as over 300 parents voiced opposition to reopening in letters to the board in September.

Because students and teachers are the ones put at the most risk if in-class instruction were to resume in January, consideration of their perspectives should have been a higher priority. board members must act on input from PAUSD families, students and faculty in order to improve representation in board decisions that affect them.

Mental health 

The transition from the Paly campus’ energetic atmosphere to a fully at-home learning model over the past few months has been a difficult adjustment for many. Reports of negative impacts on mental health, such as increased feelings of isolation as students and staff live out their day behind a screen, have been far from uncommon.

“I’ve felt a pretty drastic change in my mental health ever since we started online school,” junior Parker Bates said. “I feel disconnected and mentally drained; it’s almost like the days just repeat themselves.”

With limited participation in activities like sports and spending time with friends, distance learning has taken an especially strong toll on students.

Although Paly’s Wellness Center has taken commendable steps to support students, the board must prioritize the expansion of mental health services among all PAUSD schools, address potential sources of stress and accommodate feedback from students to develop services that best tailor to their needs.

Educational equity

Distance learning has further exacerbated the severe educational inequity throughout PAUSD. As the pandemic continues to disproportionately impact low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, it is clear that the district must implement changes with equity at the forefront of mind.

We commend the board for taking necessary action to support disadvantaged students during campus closures. These steps include distributing computers and Wi-Fi, continuing to provide meals for those who rely on school lunch and creating PAUSD+ — an in-person learning program for students who are more at risk for falling behind academically in the digital environment.

However, Verde urges the district to push further and think beyond distance learning. The board must uphold its June resolution denouncing racism and supporting equity with real action, not empty promises.

The PAUSD Promise and the inauguration of a new school board provides an opportunity to bring radical change; the urgent development of an annual District Equity Scorecard, as well as mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training for staff will help move the needle so that all students can reach their full potential.   

What should the school board focus on prioritizing first?
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