Arizona public school community weighs pros, cons, COVID-19 as return looms

Case-by-case scenarios Valley of Sun school districts face

Posted 7/29/20

As droves of Valley students start the 2020-21 school year this fall among the global pandemic of 2020, Arizona school districts move forward independently with no two plans alike.

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Arizona public school community weighs pros, cons, COVID-19 as return looms

Case-by-case scenarios Valley of Sun school districts face

Posted

As droves of Valley students start the 2020-21 school year this fall among the global pandemic of 2020, Arizona school districts move forward independently with no two plans alike.

Gov. Doug Ducey announced recently Arizona school districts would be given authority to make the best decisions for their students --- providing little guidance on safety regulations to protect teachers and students --- putting decisions about the upcoming school year in local hands.

Mr. Ducey’s announcement stressed that learning must start immediately, and school district and charter school needs to begin teacher-led distance learning --- online school --- by the first day of their traditional calendar.

Districts around the Valley have announced online start dates with plans to offer in-classroom learning later this fall, if a family so desires.

By Aug. 7, the Arizona Department of Health Services will develop and release public health benchmarks for the return of in-person, teacher-led classroom instruction, according to the governor’s office.

While school officials debate issues from face coverings to desk cleaning, a group of physicians are petitioning state leaders to put in place guidelines for children returning to classrooms.

“Lets face it,” Scottsdale physician Susan Hughes said during a July 28 press conference at the State Capitol.

“School starting is the biggest concern for most parents right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and yes, anxiety, for all stakeholders.”

Dr. Hughes and supporters want Arizona Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ to present evidence-based metrics or benchmarks for re-opening schools.

Without evidence-based metrics, could school districts be putting themselves in harms way of legal action if they re-open their classrooms too quickly?

“Successfully suing a school would be very difficult as you would somehow have to prove that this was the only place the child could have caught the virus and that the school acted negligently by failing to follow CDC and state safety guidelines,” Rose Law Group Founder Jordan Rose said, to a hypothetical situation where the virus spread quickly through one particular school.

Ms. Rose says state legislators are looking at preventing the legal industry from growing due to COVID-19-related claims.

“One thing seems clear --- all schools are trying to implement measures to reduce the risk of the spread of the virus. Most Arizona schools are allowing parents to chose having their child attend online if they feel uncomfortable with sending them to school.

Arizona: Open for Learning

Gov. Ducey’s “Open for Learning” plan was announced this summer, setting a path to reopen schools.

All public school districts set their own calendar, but each student is required by state law to attend 180 days of instruction or equivalent hours. The same requirement holds true this year, according to Mr. Ducey, despite whether a family chooses to learn in person or via distance learning.

Districts around the Valley have outlined their plans for next year:

  • Agua Fria Union High School District Superintendent Dennis Runyan said the district plans to begin Phase 1 remote learning Monday, Aug. 3 for freshman, with all other grades starting Aug. 4. Then, transition to a Phase 2 hybrid flex schedule as soon as state and federal health officials deem it safe.
  • Avondale Elementary School District students are scheduled to return Monday, Aug. 3 with a choice of in-person, flex and Digital Academy options. Students who choose in-person instruction will begin the year in the flex model and transition to in-person instruction once state and federal health officials deem it safe.
  • Phase 1 distance learning instruction is scheduled to begin Wednesday, Aug. 5 for schools in Litchfield Elementary School District, with in-person learning implemented when public health officials deem it safe for students to return to the classroom.
  • Peoria Unified will open up Aug. 5 all online from home, through at least Sept. 8. They’ll monitor the situation, and perhaps open for in-person after that or maybe even sooner
  • Scottsdale Unified School District students will “Return to Learn” on Aug. 10 for students participating in a virtual, enhanced distance-learning program. The earliest SUSD campuses will open for full-time, in-person learning is set for Sept. 8, although the date may change due to “evolving health conditions, public health guidance and potential executive orders” from the state.
  • Deer Valley Unified School District starts Monday, Aug. 3, but the district’s K-12 schools will conduct all classes through remote, online learning through the first quarter. DVUSD plans to resume in-person classes Wednesday, Oct. 14, after its Fall Break.
  • Glendale Union High School District is starting Monday, Aug. 10 and has committed to remote, online learning for the first four weeks of the school year, with students staying home through at least Friday, Sept. 4. The district says when Sept. 4 nears, it will announce whether it will extend remote learning or transition to a hybrid in-person model.
  • Glendale Elementary School District starts its school year with remote, online learning Monday, Aug. 10. The district plans a soft opening of in-person learning at its K-8 schools a week later Monday, Aug. 17, but will monitor the number of cases in the area and may push that date back. When in-person learning starts, GESD plans to have a condensed school day and will offer parents the option to have their children continue remote, online learning while others return to campuses.
  • Apache Junction Unified School District had a return-to-school task force evaluate and prepare a number of options for the 2020-21 school year. The committee came up with three learning models for students --- an in-person model, hybrid model and an online model. Online classes started July 21. The instructional day is 9 a.m.-2 p.m. for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
  • Higley USD instruction for 2020-21 started July 27 online.
  • Queen Creek USD: Online learning begins for all Queen Creek Unified School District students on Aug. 3. It will continue until Arizona Gov. Ducey approves students’ return to the classroom, according to qcusd.org.
  • Mesa Public Schools will begin the school year in remote learning on Aug. 4 and will only shift to a modified in-person model when the district determines it is safe to do so. The district will then shift to modified in-person learning, which consists of students alternating between in-person and remote learning on a staggered basis. In-person learning consists of all students returning to campus with a litany of health and safety guidelines.

Teaching from afar

For eighth grade science teacher Katherine Kvaale, continued online learning is set to commence early next week --- but the Deer Valley educator can’t wait to get back to her students.

“I want to get back to my students as soon as possible,” Ms. Kvaale says. “I became a teacher to be in the classroom with my students, teaching them, and building relationships with them. The fun part of teaching is seeing my kids every day and helping them learn and grow. You lose that personal connection when you’re only interacting through the internet.”

Her science lessons will include live instruction through online video-conferencing program Zoom, partnered students completing assignments through Canvas.

“Parent communication will be important during this time as everyone is definitely feeling the stress of having their kids at home and making sure they’re completing assignments and getting the education they need,” Ms. Kvaale says.

DVUSD’s plan at this time is to return to in-classroom learning in October, following fall break --- which Ms. Kvaale says is riddled with questions.

“There are endless questions about how we’re going to make that happen, though,” Ms. Kvaale said about returning to campus. “Questions about safety, liability, resources, etc. Unfortunately many of those questions are going to go unanswered. People have such polarizing opinions about returning to school; it’s become a very heated discussion on both sides. I just want my coworkers to be safe and I want my students to thrive.”

Getting it right

The lonely health guideline in the Return to Learn plan is guidance to schools to create face mask requirements. The plan states:

“To facilitate the safe return to the classroom, all schools will develop face covering policies to protect students and staff. Exceptions shall be made for students when they can socially distance, are outside in playground settings with distancing, breaks for students to take their masks off in a safe environment, and other exceptions outlined in CDC guidelines.”

The Arizona group of physicians want the state’s decision regarding school openings be guided by science and consider community spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Hughes, who led the July 28 press conference, said she wants safe students and safe teachers. She is a mother of two school-aged teenagers.

The Scottsdale doctor says during the governor’s press conference, he tasked Dr. Christ with coming up with metrics for re-opening schools, and AzAAP offered to help develop those benchmarks.

“It is imperative to understand that benchmarks or metrics are criteria that must --- I’ll repeat, must --- be met and not be swayed by outside forces,” Dr. Hughes said, requesting that these metrics must be met before considering re-opening schools for learning.

Dr. Hughes said at the end of the press conference that she wants to see the spread of the virus slow down across the community as a whole, before talking about how it would work in schools.

“I’d rather get it safe, in the community, first, before we even have a discussion about getting our kids back into the schools. And then, continue the conversation about what it would be like in school,” she said.

“How many of us are concerned that baseball will not continue, even without fans, because of the rapid spread, even in a controlled setting. If they can’t control it at Marlins, how are they going to control it in our districts?”

In a written guideline statement provided to Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ and Arizona Superintendent of Instruction Kathy Hoffman, the pediatrics group produced benchmarks at a physician/educator COVID workgroup. They suggest:

  • Adequate testing: viral PCR testing with positivity rate of less than 5%.
  • Testing resources should be accessible to students and staff, available same-day and for all age groups.
  • Less invasive methods preferred for pediatric population- Saliva or finger-poke testing.
  • Need rapid turnaround of results (within 24 hours).
  • Widespread detailed contact tracing: able to reach contacts within one week of individual’s positive result.
  • Consistent downward trajectory of cases over a 28-day period with 7-day running averages.
  • Adequate hospital beds and staffing: able to treat all patients without crisis/surge capacity.
  • Adequate PPE/supplies for all educators and staff members.
  • Clear guideline of educational and isolation expectations when a student or staff member becomes positive, as well as being exposed outside of school.

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