PALO ALTO — Instead of going home after dropping her daughter off at El Carmelo School Wednesday morning, Delmey Walker hung out to help students test for COVID-19 and prevent them from getting too rowdy in the library.
Walker, a mother of two students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, was one of hundreds of parents who answered the call to participate in a unique new program — “1 Palo Alto” — that district administrators hope will will prevent schools from closing again as the ommicron variant continues to spark fears that spring 2022 will look a lot like 2020.
To bolster staffing levels in all schools as throngs of teachers and support staff call in sick, Chief Superintendent Don Austin last weekend sent a plea through the district’s website for community volunteers to help out. Within the first 20 minutes, 51 parents had registered. By Monday morning, the number had risen to 350 and a day later it had more than doubled to 756.
“We expected a solid response,” Austin said. “But I didn’t expect this.”
Like other Bay Area school districts, Palo Alto Unified has tried to stave off a highly contagious strain that has crept into classrooms as relentlessly as it has into workplaces, businesses, and family circles. The spate of COVID cases has prompted Governor Gavin Newsom and state leaders this week to help schools solve crippling teacher shortages and support staff.
In Oakland, a dozen schools closed after more than 500 teachers staged an illness Friday to draw attention to what they believed were unsafe classroom conditions during the wave.
While there is no concerted effort between Palo Alto Unified teachers and their union to do the same, the virus’s toll is similar. In an email Friday, the district said 382 COVID cases had been reported among students and staff, 144 of which were discovered through on-campus testing. On a typical day there would be about 50 teachers absent from the entire district, and now there are over 70.
And the problem has only gotten worse as the district struggles to find enough replacement teachers, a challenge other Bay Area schools face. On Monday alone, the district needed 19 replacement teachers that it did not have.
That’s why Walker decided to volunteer, she said in the school’s administrative offices on a crisp Tuesday morning. She does not want her children to go back to distance learning and will do everything she can to keep the physical classrooms open.
The stay-at-home mom said she had to get up and become a teacher for her two children as the 2020 pandemic closed schools across the country. For over a year, Walker was mother and educator in one, but she could see her children missing out on the social and emotional learning experiences that can only be found in school.
“It was hard bouncing between them and making sure they were happy and fulfilled and feeling somewhat normal,” she said. “It would be depressing to learn at home again. I think we all have PTSD from that.”
El Carmelo Headmaster Aleyda Cruz said there are about 70 parents like Walker who have signed up to help out during the school year. To be eligible, volunteers must be parents of students currently enrolled in Palo Alto schools and testing negative for COVID-19. There is also an opportunity for high school students to volunteer for duty hours, and the district encourages carpools to help fill transportation gaps caused by bus driver shortages.
At El Carmelo, Cruz said volunteers will primarily work to support students during library time, lunchtime and art classes.
“Our school has always had a very strong parental presence, so during the pandemic we just had to change and find other ways they could help us,” Cruz said. “This school year we have had volunteers for those three main areas, things that are considered essential in our school. Ever since the ommicron started, we’ve wanted to find other ways to keep schools open. This initiative is the next step in keeping us open, and parents are supporting that effort.”
The desire to keep schools open is something Chief Inspector Austin can understand. Watching the news get worse as COVID cases mounted over the past week, Austin took the weekend to come up with the “1 Palo Alto” program after meeting with teachers and principals to make it a reality.
“Parents have always been partners with schools, but for the past two years we have been conditioned to say that parents cannot be on campus because they are somehow unsafe during their time in school,” Austin said. “As a result, schools across the country — including us — haven’t gone first to the group we always go to: the parents. It’s their time to lend a hand.”
School officials say parents will not take the place of teachers, and so far there have been no concerns from teacher unions.
Tara McCannell, the mother of a first- and fifth-grader in El Carmelo, helped test COVID-19 at school on Wednesday. The pandemic had given the former employee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Santa Clara County Health Department a unique experience with her family as she tried her best to work full-time and help her children complete distance learning.
When her kids finally went back to school, they were happy, she said. It would be devastating to be held back by another school closure.
“There was an unspoken undercurrent of loss of social interaction and mental health problems that we started seeing in our children,” McCannell said. “The opportunity for us to go back to school in a safe way has been a great benefit to us. Volunteering for me right now is an acceptable risk I have to take to keep my kids in school.”