Palo Alto schools recruit parents for support as teachers, other staff call in sick amid Omicron surge

PALO ALTO – Instead of going home after dropping her daughter off at El Carmelo school on Wednesday morning, Delmi Walker stuck around to help students test for COVID-19 and keep them from getting too rowdy at the library.

Walker, a mother of two students in the Palo Alto Unified School District, was among hundreds of parents who have answered the call to join a unique new program – “1 Palo Alto” – that district administrators hope will help schools prevent you from closing your doors again. As the Omicron variant has fueled fears that Spring 2022 could be a lot like 2020.

Sick as teachers and support personnel rush to increase staffing at all schools, Superintendent Don Austin sent a petition via the district’s website for community volunteers this past weekend. Within the first 20 minutes, 51 parents had signed up. By Monday morning that number had risen to 350, and a day later it more than doubled to 756.

“We expected a solid response,” Austin said. “But I didn’t expect it.”

Like other school districts in the Bay Area, Palo Alto Unified has found itself trying to stop a highly contagious version of what has ruthlessly infiltrated classrooms, like workplaces, businesses, and family circles. A surge in COVID cases has prompted Governor Gavin Newsom and state leaders to scramble this week to help schools address crippling teacher and support staff shortages.

In Oakland, a dozen schools closed Friday after more than 500 teachers took ill for what they said were unsafe classroom conditions amid a surge.

Although there has been no concerted effort between Palo Alto Unified’s teachers and their union to do so, the virus’ toll has remained the same. In a Friday email, the district said 382 COVID cases were registered among students and staff, of which 144 were traced through on-campus tests. On a normal day, around 50 teachers across the district used to be absent, and now there are over 70 teachers.

And the problem has only gotten worse as the district struggles to find enough substitute teachers, a challenge other Bay Area schools face as well. On Monday alone, the district needed 19 alternative teachers, which it did not have.

So Walker decided to volunteer, she said Tuesday morning at the school’s administrative offices. She does not want her children to return to distance learning again and will do everything in her power to keep physical classes open.

The stay-at-home mom said that in 2020 when the pandemic closed schools across the country, she had to become a teacher for her two children. Watch your children lose out on social and emotional learning experiences that can only be found in school.

“It was bouncing hard between them and making sure they were happy and content and feeling something in common,” she said. “It will be disappointing to go back to learning at home. I think we all have PTSD from it. ,

El Carmelo school principal Aleida Cruz said there are about 70 parents like Walker who have signed up to help during the school year. To qualify, volunteers must be parents of students currently enrolled in Palo Alto schools and test negative for COVID-19. There is also an opportunity for high school students to volunteer for service hours, and the district is encouraging carpools to help fill transportation gaps caused by bus driver shortages.

In El Carmelo, Cruz said volunteers will work primarily to support students during library time, lunch, and art classes.

“Our school has always had a very strong parental presence, so during the pandemic, we just had to shift and find other ways they could help us,” Cruz said. “This school year we got volunteers for three main areas that are considered essential in our school. Ever since Omicron 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 Superintendent Austin can understand. Seeing the news getting more dire as COVID cases spiked over the past week, Austin took the weekend to come up with a “1 Palo Alto” program to make this a reality by meeting with teachers and principals.

“Parents have always been partners with schools, but for the past two years we have been forced to say that parents cannot be on campus because they are somehow unsafe during their time at school,” Austin he said. “As a result of that, schools across the country – including ours – haven’t been the first in the group we always go to: parents. It is time to lend their hand.”

School officials say parents will not replace teachers, and so far there have been no concerns from teacher unions.

Tara McConnell, a mother of first and fifth graders in El Carmelo, was helping with a COVID-19 test at the school on Wednesday. The pandemic gave the former staff member 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 while helping her children get distance education.

When her kids finally got back to school “they were overjoyed,” she said. To be set back by another school closure would be disastrous.

“It was this untold undercurrent of loss of social interaction and mental health issues that we were starting to see in our children,” McConnell said. “The ability for us to get back to school safely was a real advantage for us. Volunteering for me at this time is an acceptable risk I need to take to keep my kids in school.”