Mesa Public Schools is telling its families to prepare for landing as the district moves to modified in-person learning by Sept. 14.
The MPS Governing Board spent nearly four hours on Aug. 25 discussing the many facets of returning and how to do so safely but did not make a final decision as the item was part of the study session.
Throughout the school year, families will continue to have the option to continue remote learning.
MPS Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis’s recommendation to begin transitioning to modified in-person learning comes as COVID-19 numbers continue to decline in the state. Dr. Fourlis said the district is following the county’s benchmarks to determine if it is safe to move into the modified in-person learning.
“I want to send a sincere appreciation to our community and to our parents and to those who are supporting our kids in a remote learning environment,” Dr. Fourlis said during the meeting. “We know it has not been optimal for every family and that there have been frustrations and struggles for many of our families.”
The county is monitoring the pandemic using three metrics: case numbers per 100,000; percent positivity, which is a proportion of all tests that come back positive; and COVID-like illness percentage of hospital visits, which monitors the percent of people visiting emergency rooms and hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms.
The state metrics, which serve as guidelines instead of requirements, recommend virtual learning if cases are over 100 per 100,000; over 10% positivity; and over 10% in COVID-like illness. The next stage, where schools can move to modified in-person, is met if cases are between 10-100 per 100,000; and a 5-10% positivity percent and COVID-like illness.
The final stage is where schools can return to traditional learning if case numbers are below 10 per 100,000; and below 5% in both positivity rate and COVID-like illness.
Data released Sept. 3 shows most ZIP codes within the district qualify for modified in-person learning. Three ZIP codes — 85201, 85204 and 85210 — are still within the virtual learning stage but MPS as a whole qualifies for the modified in-person learning.
The county is updating these numbers every Thursday.
The majority of the Governing Board’s discussion centered on the logistics of returning to modified in-person learning with some discussions breaking details down to the minute detail.
Topics in the discussion included safety, transportation, cleaning, daily schedule, learning environments, continued family support, enrollment, student choice assignments, employee job assignments, COVID-19 tracking and reporting and on-site support centers.
Dr. Fourlis said this plan is the result of input from many across the district. She said the district has done its best to incorporate all practical input as it could into crafting the plan.
“I want you to know that tonight [Aug. 25] our model we bring to you is the best work of our highly skilled leaders who have led 11 design teams,” she said. “I can assure you what we present tonight will satisfy some and it will disappoint others. We have learned that there are no perfect solutions to finding common ground and that is incredibly difficult in this pandemic.”
As part of the hybrid model, the district will separate students into A and B groups, working with families to get siblings on the same days if wanted.
Group A will be on campus on Mondays and Thursdays while Group B will attend Tuesdays and Fridays. Wednesday will be a remote day where teachers can work with small groups, hold office hours and have teacher planning time.
Assistant Superintendent of the Mesa/Mountain View Area, Monica Mesa, said schools will separate students based on last names. The idea is to have half of student population on each days.
Board President Elaine Miner expressed concern at the district's efforts to keep families together, conceding it is a monumental task.
“I appreciate very much that the district is trying to accommodate this plan but I also want to be realistic and let parents know that there is not a guarantee that this is going to work out for everyone and that they need to be understanding that we’re doing the best we can would be my assumption, but we certainly can’t guarantee that all families will have the ideal solution to their schedule,” she said.
In terms of safety, students will be required to have face masks. There also will be physical distancing, smaller class sizes, one-way traffic patterns in the hallways and sanitation protocols.
Associate Superintendent Holly Williams emphasized that masks are “nonnegotiable” and will be required of all who enter MPS buildings and schools. Ms. Williams said the district will provide masks to students or people who do not have one but also said the district is prepared to not allow those without one to enter the buildings.
“If a family were to make a different choice, as we said, we have remote learning as one of our options and families can chose the best option for their family,” Ms. Williams said.
As far as ventilation, Scott Thompson, assistant superintendent of business and support services, said the district has invested heavily in upgrading the schools’ systems. Many MPS school classrooms do not have windows.
Mr. Thompson said many of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-recommended filters would not work because they would cause system failure. He also said at this time, school systems won’t be able to use a lot of fresh air but as temperatures cool, they’ll be able to incorporate more fresh air without overloading the systems.
“There has been a lot of speculation about adding mechanical systems, ionization systems, HEPA filter systems, but they’re very expensive and there’s not exactly the direct evidence they produce a safe outcome,” he said.
“Moving forward, we’re looking at what is the science, what do we have in front of us, what can we do? When it really comes down to it, it goes back to our mask policy because it’s about the disease being airborne and if the masks are helping with that, then we are less likely to have those droplets being sucked into our air conditioning systems and be dispersed into other areas.
“But at the end of the day, I can’t guarantee anybody that something like that can’t happen.”