Mesa Public Schools announced its final plans for reopening schools in the fall with the district taking a phased approach to returning to in-person learning, one that has no plans to return to in-person by Aug. 17.
District leaders presented the plans as a discussion item at the July 14 Governing Board meeting. The district will begin remote learning on Aug. 4 and will move through the phases throughout the fall semester.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gave an executive order on June 29 that delayed the start of in-person learning until at least Aug. 17.
In compliance with the order, MPS will start the school year in an all remote setting before transitioning. The other phases include modified in-person learning and in-person learning with the option to continue in remote learning available.
Mesa Public School Superintendent, Dr. Andi Fourlis, said the district had no plans to return to in-person learning on Aug. 17, saying the district doesn’t know if that day will be safe for students or staff to return. She said district decisions will follow closely to public health officials’ advice.
“We are not going to hang our hats on a date because that creates ... much anxiety in our staff and our community,” she said. “And, we know there is the other side of that coin. There’s anxiety of not knowing.”
Dr. Fourlis said she believes the pandemic has brought down barriers and will bring more opportunities for the children. She complimented the collaborative nature of district leaders who might not have worked together in other circumstances.
“I am in awe at the work that has been done with care and compassion and concern with students at the center so our kids are ready for the future that they deserve,” Dr. Fourlis said.
Governing Board President Elaine Miner said Dr. Fourlis and her staff did a great job at incorporating myriad viewpoints from the community, district staff and others in crafting the district’s plans. She further asked the community for its support.
“What I’m really encouraging is people have patience, understanding, some faith --- I believe personally in faith --- and that to believe we are all working to do what is best for all who are concerned,” she said.
Mesa Public Schools plans to have three phases for reopening: remote, modified in-person and in-person. As the district moves along the road map, there will still always be an option for remote learning.
“I assure you we want nothing more than to get back to our core business of learning,” Dr. Fourlis said. “This will allow us to increase equitable access for students and to provide social, emotional and academic experiences that bring our students and staff together safely.”
As part of the remote environment, students will participate in teacher-led instruction through Canvas learning management system and using different curriculum based on their grade level. Each student will get a district-issued laptop.
MPS plans to use Creative Curriculum for pre-kindergarten students; Florida Virtual Learning for elementary age students; Mesa Distance Learning Program for secondary students; and teacher-created curriculum for all students.
In a modified, in-person learning environment, students will alternate between in-person and remote learning throughout the school week. Schools will assign students to groups based on their last names and each group will alternate days attending school.
This breakdown would be Mondays and Thursdays for one group and Tuesday and Fridays for others with each group attending on Wednesday on alternating weeks. Modified in-person students will also use the same curriculum they used during the remote portion as part of their days away from the school.
The final stage is in-person learning and students will participate in a typical classroom setting with enhanced health and safety measures.
When it is time to shift, Associate Superintendent Holly Williams said that change will consist of a two-week transition period. During that time, families can tell the district what they will choose to do and teachers will have time to prepare for the shift.
Ms. Williams also said the transition periods are flexible at this point and the district will heavily involve and communicate with the community so families know exactly when those periods are and what to expect.
“Two weeks was a minimum time we would need to make the transition but by no means are we saying that is the absolute,” she said. “It is what we feel we would need to do it successfully and the part about communication that’s different in our plan moving forward is our family support teams, our family support network. Utilizing those team members to reach those families who, in the past, have been disconnected.”
The district has also outlined health and safety guidelines that mirror the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state and county public health officials. There are similar guidelines adapted to various situations such as on campus or on the bus.
Some notable guidelines include using face coverings when 6-foot physical distancing isn’t feasible; frequent hand washing; and a health assessment prior to children going to school.
When students return, they can expect to see modified classroom configurations, an expectation of physical distancing and limited movement of students throughout the campus.
MPS also has plans for family support regardless of the phase. These efforts include daily and weekly social-emotional learning lessons as well as parents having access to teachers and staff for technical support and professional learning.
The district also outlined a plan for students with special needs. These efforts include weekly contacts from staff to parents to address student needs, continued individualized education program team meetings and additional resources to meet IEP goals of students.
The Governing Board dedicated the final portion of their meeting to reading questions and comments from the public. Comments ranged from some wanting caution for reopening to others wanting an in-person option available as soon as the governor allows. Other concerns centered on parents worried about the heavy lift that would come from having multiple students in the home.
One commenter expressed concern about what the district’s response would be to a student or teacher testing positive for COVID-19. Ms. Williams said the district would follow the state’s directive of 14-day quarantines with 72 hours of no symptoms before being allowed back at the school.
Ms. Williams said the Maricopa County Department of Health has yet to develop guidelines on closing classrooms or schools in the case of a positive case but the district will follow those guidelines when they become available. She said the norm is for those who come in contact with a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 to either self-quarantine or to maintain physical distancing practices unless symptoms arise.
Assistant Superintendent of Special Education, Theresa Baca, also fielded a question about addressing the social and emotional health of special-needs students who don’t learn well through technology.
She said the student’s team would convene to discuss how best to approach the situation, gather all the resources available to them and craft a plan to best help the student.
As for face masks, Executive Director of Information and Outreach Helen Hollands said kindergarten through sixth-grade students will be required to wear face coverings for times when physical distancing cannot be maintained such as break times. If the situation allows for the proper physical distancing, Ms. Hollands said masks won’t be required.
With class sizes, Dr. Fourlis said there is no recommendation to change current class ratios. Mesa’s average student-to-teacher ratio is 24 to 1 in K-6 classes while the 7-12 ratio is 30 to 1 with a 28 to 1 ratio for junior high and 29 to 1 in high school.
Another question centered on how virtual choir classes might look. Dr. Yslas said the music department is working out specifics on how lessons might looks. She also said once the modified in-person model took hold, the district would follow all safety guidelines.
While the Governing Board was unable to address all the concerns that came in, district leaders indicated they would try to incorporate all responses into the frequently asked questions and, in specific cases, send responses back to the commenter, individually.
Ms. Hollands said those FAQs and other updates are available at http://www.mpsaz.org/beprepared/reopen. She said this area will be updated frequently as the situation evolves.
“‘Check back and check back often,’ would be a phrase I want everybody to remember as they start to think about the plan and its impact on their family, whether you’re an employee of the district, a parent of the district or even a community member who wants to understand how we’re handling this,” she said.