It was a school year unlike any other for students and teachers on the Midpeninsula. Students were sent home to learn in March when schools were forced to close for in-person instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By the fall, some students in the Las Lomitas Elementary, Woodside Elementary, Portola Valley and Menlo Park City school districts, along with some private schools, returned to campuses for class. They faced social distancing measures, mask-wearing mandates, COVID-19 testing and quarantines when students or staff members in their cohorts tested positive. So far, few cases have been reported in these districts. Other students continued with online learning and may do so for the remainder of the school year.
There were mixed feelings about going back to school. Teachers expressed fears about the risks of contracting COVID-19 by returning to classrooms. Some parents stressed the negative impacts of distance learning on their children's mental health, while many struggled to work from home while acting as de facto teachers and tech support to their children.
Parents and teachers in the Sequoia Union High School District, in particular, were at odds over whether to resume in-person instruction. Some parents implored board members to reopen schools as the number of students with more than one failing grade jumped to 29% in the fall of 2020 from 19.7% in 2019.
Leadership changes and controversies
The Las Lomitas Elementary School District was rocked by racist and misogynistic tweets about Vice President-elect Kamala Harris by then-board president Jon Venverloh's wife in November. He stepped down following community outcry over the social media posts.
Jason Morimoto was elected to the board in Nov. 3, but the other election-winner, Jody Leng, announced she would not join the board, leaving the the school board to appoint new members to fill two of its five seats (trustees Diana Honda and Bill Steinmetz did not seek reelection and their terms ended on Dec. 11).
More backlash against district officials came later in November when a Change.org petition began circulating to recall trustee John Earnhardt. Parents supporting the recall effort said his comments in a local newspaper reacting to the Venverloh tweets lacked sensitivity and warrant his removal.
District parents started the online petition after Earnhardt declined a request that he step down from the board. The parents took issue with statements he made to the Palo Alto Daily Post, calling Venverloh a "very diligent as a board member and impactful for the district" and noting the "controversy moved quickly because it spread through electronic media and parents are more engaged in the district than in the past" because board meetings are happening over Zoom.
An official recall petition would require signatures from a quarter of the district's registered voters in order to move forward.
Board members decided to appoint new trustees since the cost of a special election would be nearly half a million dollars, and on Dec. 18, they selected Molly Finn, a candidate who lost the Nov. 3 election, and parent Cynthia Solis Yi.
The Sequoia Union High School District's embattled Superintendent Mary Streshly was paid over $250,000 by the district to resign in September. This came after the teachers union and other top administrators, including local high school principals and vice principals, [called for her ouster, decrying her as an ineffective leader.
Two newcomers filled contested seats on the Sequoia district's governing board following the November election. District residents, for the first time, voted based on the geographical area of the school district where they reside.
Rich Ginn, a parent and business owner who previously served eight years on the Las Lomitas district governing board, unseated incumbent Georgia Jack for the Trustee Area C seat, which represents Woodside, West Menlo Park and Portola Valley.
Shawneece Stevenson won the Trustee Area E seat to represent Menlo Park neighborhoods east of Highway 101 as well as East Palo Alto. Candidate Jacqui Cebrian dropped out of the race in September and threw her support to Stevenson.
Enrollment shrank at local public schools in fall of 2020 as families moved out of the area, joined learning pods or turned to private schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the local elementary school districts have seen small dips in enrollment over the last few years, the Sequoia Union High School District had seen steady growth up until this school year.
Sports seasons disrupted
Although high school athletes were allowed to do conditioning training with safety measures in place, students never competed against other teams during fall semester, as already delayed seasons were called off entirely.
The California Department of Public Health issued new guidelines in mid-December stating that youth sports cannot start until at least Jan. 25.
Strife at TIDE Academy
In February, the leadership at the newest high school in the Sequoia district was accused of tracking students, retaliation against those who complained and mismanagement in an anonymous letter that claimed to represent the concerns of a group of TIDE Academy employees.
Among the most serious in the litany of complaints about the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math)-focused school in Menlo Park was the allegation about tracking, the practice of sorting students into different programs of study based on their perceived abilities, which critics say has historically harmed students of color and students from less-affluent families.
Other complaints in the letter included students being told that they couldn't transfer out of the school, that the technology center was inoperable and concerns that the TIDE principal's friendship with Superintendent Streshly prevented necessary oversight.