Just two weeks after transitioning preschool through fifth-grade students to full-time in-person learning, Litchfield Elementary School District is moving all students to full-time distance learning Monday, Nov. 9 until further notice due to rising COVID-19 cases in the Southwest Valley.
They will join Agua Fria Union High School students, who transitioned from distance to two-day-onsite hybrid learning Oct. 12. AFUHSD’s Governing Board voted Wednesday night to move students in its five high schools back distance learning until at least the end of the semester Dec. 18.
LESD operates 11 elementary and five middle schools serving about 12,000 preschool through eighth-grade students in Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear and Litchfield Park. Last week, Superintendent Jodi Gunning announced sixth- through eighth-grade students would not transition from the two-day-onsite hybrid learning model on Nov. 2 as planned, but elementary students would continue in person if benchmarks stayed the same or moved downward.
Maricopa County Department of Public Health benchmarks data released Thursday showed the district’s percent positivity rose to above 7%, and cases per 100k people jumped to 156.79.
The benchmarks — number of cases per 100,000 people, percent positivity of tests and percentage of people hospitalized with COVID-like illnesses — are divided into three categories: substantial, moderate and minimal.
Substantial transmission is defined as more than 100 cases per 100,000 people, 10% or higher test positivity and more than 10% hospitalizations; moderate transmission is defined as 10 to 100 cases per 100,000 people, 5% to 10% test positivity and 5% to 10% hospitalizations and minimal transmission is defined as fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people, less than 5% test positivity and fewer than 5% hospitalizations.
Ms. Gunning said Friday the decision to return to distance learning was based on consultation with public health authorities, officials from each of its four cities, the Governing Board, families, teachers, school nurses and leaders from other school districts.
“We recognize the substantial impact that this decision has on our families and believe that this is the best decision for the health and safety of our students and staff,” she said in a letter to parents and a post on the district’s website. “We put much thought, expertise and care into every decision we make about this complex situation. We will continue to monitor the situation and will send you an update after Thanksgiving.”
Ms. Gunning advised that teachers would contact parents about their children’s schedules.
Independent Newsmedia reached out to parents via Facebook on Friday, asking them to weigh in on the decision, its impact on their families and how are they preparing for Monday.
Several, like Randi Johnson of Litchfield Park and Heidi Mowrey of Goodyear, were not happy.
“Garbage decision, keep the kids in brick and mortar school,” said Ms. Johnson, whose child attends Litchfield Elementary School.
Distance learning causes her family social and mental angst, but they will be ready on Monday, she said.
“We will just plug in the laptop and push through the days ahead,” she said. “The decision to cancel school is ridiculous, and honestly as a parent, I’m disgusted with the school superintendent, board and all parties involved.”
Ms. Mowrey, who has a student at Belen Soto Elementary School and another in high school, chose the in-person learning model for her students.
“The kids who went back in person had to sign a disclosure about the risks. The parents who sent their kids back to school are aware of the risks but believe it is in their best interests to be in person,” she said. “Mental health is equally as important as physical health.
“They will be online Monday, sadly,” Ms. Mowrey said, adding she is considering pulling them from public school.
Others, like Tiffany Ann and Shannon Osiro of Litchfield Park, agreed with the district.
“I think it is a wise decision. I feel they were sent back too early to begin with,” said Ms. Ann, who has one student at L. Thomas Heck Middle School and another at Canyon View High School. "I did not send either back, they are still online.”
Ms. Osiro has three children enrolled in LESD schools and one at Canyon View High.
She said her children are “a little down about going back to remote, but I’m fine with it since the numbers are rising again ... better safe than sorry.”
Carrie Theriault of Goodyear said her three daughters, who attend Millennium High School in Goodyear, would all rather be in school, learning and laughing with their friends.
“One of my daughters is driven and excels both in the classroom and online. She is a perfectionist and able to teach herself,” she said. “The other two require more direction and schedule/structure. They are both struggling.”
Both Ms. Theriault and her husband want their children onsite full-time, she said.
“We are a two- parent working household and this is getting ridiculous. Let our kids be kids. Let them go to school. Let them go to sports. Take the necessary precautions and go, be kids,” she said, noting that the girls are required to work at the family’s kitchen table.
“We do not allow them to work in their rooms as they tend to go back to bed if they become uninterested,” she said. “It is a struggle with three kids in three different classes but they work through it. A lot of micromanagement on my part, on top of a 60-hour-per-week responsibility at work. There is more yelling than I would like and more frustration than necessary.”
“We implore the community to follow public health recommendations. Our students will be able to return to school sooner if community members help slow the spread of this virus,” Ms. Gunning said. “We are grateful for our dedicated staff members and remarkable community for their grace and support during this challenging time.“
Her letter to families and staff urged everyone to avoid large and small gatherings, wear face coverings, physical distance with people outside of their household, wash hands frequently and stay home when feeling ill.
She also wrote that in an effort to promote wellness and maintain connections to students, the district will offer free meals daily for children age 18 and under. Times and locations were scheduled to post on the district’s website, lesd79.org, over the weekend.
“In these most challenging times, we thank you for your grace and flexibility,” she said.
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 760-963-1697.