The Los Altos School District is pausing all in-person classes and moving back to fully remote learning next week as a result of high numbers of staff absences.
All students who have been attending in-person classes will return to learning from home starting Monday. After next week, the district will be off for winter break, during which time administrators plan to assess staff availability and consult with health officials as COVID-19 cases rise in the broader community.
“We are experiencing a high number of staff absences, as we sometimes do during the winter months, stretching our staffing levels very thin,” Superintendent Jeff Baier said in an email to families Friday afternoon. “Whereas normally we could compensate by bringing in substitute teachers or moving staff around the district to cover for absences, in our current circumstances this would introduce too much cross-exposure between different school communities and classroom cohorts.”
In an interview, Baier said he believes the district is seeing more staff absences than in a typical year, although there hasn’t been a detailed comparison. Each day, staff and students complete a symptom screener, and are required to stay home if they report any possible COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to the virus.
The district has thus far reported three students and four staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to its online dashboard. Staff members out sick don’t necessarily have COVID-19, but Baier said the district wants everyone to be vigilant about not reporting to work if they feel ill.
As staffing levels have gotten tighter, there began to be concerns about being able to keep students in stable groups, as well as following all cleaning and sanitizing requirements, Baier said.
Although the district can bring in substitute teachers, they don’t typically hire substitutes to fill in for support staff. Many of those roles are particularly important during a pandemic, as custodians carry out enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols and more staff are needed for tasks like supervising students during recess and lunch, because they are now in small groups assigned to separate areas.
On a broader level, Baier said more staff have been required to run two concurrent programs: one for students returning part-time to campus and another for those who have opted to stay fully remote. The district has brought students in fifth grade and below back onto campus in a hybrid model, with each student on campus two days a week. Families also had the choice to continue with fully virtual learning.
The decision to pause all in-person classes came as district administrators saw growing staff absences throughout the district.
“As we had the conversations, there was enough discussion of departments running closer to the minimum, it really gave us pause,” Baier said. “When we’re starting to talk about whether we can ensure all of the health and safety measures can be administered and adhered to, that’s when it gets more concerning.”
Rather than waiting until there weren’t sufficient staff on a given day and having to cancel classes with little notice, Baier said he wanted to make the decision ahead of time, to allow for more planning.
Students who had been coming to campus will now return to the same general routine they followed before in-person classes resumed earlier this fall. Teachers will meet with students online every day except Wednesday, when students will work independently.
Students are still scheduled to return to campus on Jan. 4, but the district will use winter break to monitor staffing levels. District officials will also stay in contact with the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department, as COVID-19 cases continue to spike.
In recent weeks, the county has seen its largest surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations yet, with ICU capacity dwindling and the county in the state’s highest risk tier for COVID-19. The county is also under a “stay home order,” which restricted many sectors, but allowed schools that were already open to remain open, so long as health and safety measures were in place.