Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has identified Aug. 17 as the day to return to in-person classes in schools across the state, but members of the Peoria Unified community have concerns about that with coronavirus numbers climbing.
The state reported more than 2,500 new coronavirus cases July 12. In the week prior, nearly 27 percent of Arizona tests were positive, the highest rate in the nation.
The PUSD governing board opened up time at its July 9 meeting for pre-submitted public comments during the portion of the agenda scheduled to discuss COVID-19 and plans for the upcoming fall semester.
“As an employee and advocate for my students, former and future, I am concerned about their safety as well as that of my colleagues and myself when we re-open in person,” Peoria resident Kristy Gordon submitted in a statement, during the meeting held remotely online due to restrictions on public gatherings. She expressed concerns about re-opening schools in person, including everything from ventilation systems inside buildings to shared bathrooms.
“New data that is coming in reflects that children are not immune as previously thought. Children are being affected and affecting those that they might come into contact with. There have been reports from Texas, Oregon, Florida and even here in Arizona of students contracting COVID-19 as well as the staff at those facilities.”
Questions were shared about different groups within the student population.
“How does the district plan on providing special education services outlined within the IEPs to preschool students?,” Peoria resident Jocelyn Thomas asked. “In the FAQ, the reason for not providing virtual preschool was our current online platform does not have curriculum that supports students in preschool. Please consider finding a virtual platform for this age group so special education services can continue.”
Board members said they will consider all the public comments during ongoing plans.
One thing that is certain, however, is when PUSD plans to return to school.
“As of right now, our plan will be the same, that we will be following the governor and the state and local health officials and their recommendations. So we are currently planning for opening up on the 17th for face-to-face,” Peoria Unified superintendent Dr. Jason Reynolds said. “Having said that, with the governor’s presentation (on July 9) and all the data that we have, it is also absolutely critical for us to be planning for us to be in a virtual environment for weeks, potentially months, beyond the 17th. We are planning for both of those scenarios.”
Board member Monica Ceja Martinez stressed the importance of routine, structure and order for students’ academic growth; and she sees going full-time online, in the early going, as the best scenario.
“Hypothetically speaking if we go live, my fear is 10 days after because Peoria Unified does not have the safety measures in place,” she said. “My concern is that we’ll be back to a stay-at-home order or we have certain schools shut down, disrupting going back online, and it’s chaos all over.”
She cited the district’s 43 school nurses to cover 37,000 students and 4,000 staff members as “not sufficient.”
“I’m going to make a very clear stance as a governing board member that I do not support in-school, in-person resuming classes for the fall semester,” Ms. Ceja Martinez said. “That gives the district the ability to staff appropriately.”
Governing board clerk Cory Underhill expressed awareness of families facing unemployment, an upcoming reduction in coronavirus assistance benefits, and childcare issues for working parents still unsure if their students will be learning from home or not as additional considerations.
“I recognize the concerns about health, I really do, but I don’t believe our district has made a sort of shotgun approach (to 2020-21),” she said. “I feel like we have a very measured approach. We’re monitoring the (virus) transmission rates, we have some benchmarks as far as looking at Labor Day, looking at the first quarter, looking at the first semester. I just feel like until we have a plan for how we can fully support all of our parents and our students in being successful at home for that length of time, I don’t feel comfortable sticking a stake in the ground as far as the semester.”
Governing board president David Sandoval included his perspective as well.
“I would highly recommend that we at least put a stake in the ground to be online through the end of the first quarter, which allows for a seamless transition quarter to quarter,” he said.
Added Dr. Reynolds, “It is very difficult for me to see a scenario where in the next three to four weeks things change enough for it to be safe for our schools to open up, but having said that we’ll continue to work with our health officials to see where we are.”
The district is preparing digitally for scenarios that see either students learning full-time online or in a hybrid situation involving some in-person learning.
“We do have a very large team getting ready to support virtual,” PUSD chief academic support officer Dr. Kendra Bell said. “It will take all of the academic services team to support what we’re trying to do virtually.”
While more than 140 teachers have applied for full-time virtual teaching positions, there is another concern. Some district teachers are reportedly worried that should they receive one of the full-time virtual positions that their original home-campus position would then not be available when circumstances allow to return safely to in-person learning.
“We have teachers who are very concerned that if they move into an online format that they wouldn’t be guaranteed their position back,” Dr. Reynolds said. “And we can’t guarantee that their position will be there when they go back if there are not enough students who are there face-to-face; if we have to replace their position with another employee. There are a variety of scenarios where we cannot guarantee that a teacher would have his or her position if they choose to move into the online.”
Also, a scenario going to full-time online would affect the roughly 2,000 classified district staff members.
“If we choose or we have to go to a virtual environment, we have many non-certified staff members who could potentially be impacted in an adverse way,” Dr. Reynolds added.
Discussions will continue as the Aug. 17 start date approaches.
“This is not exactly how I envisioned my first days, weeks and months as superintendent,” Dr. Reynolds said at the July 9 meeting, which was his first official board meeting as PUSD superintendent. He succeeded outgoing superintendent Linda Palles Thompson, who retired last month.
“I don’t know where we will be on Aug. 17 or Sept. 1 or throughout the first semester. I wish I did. But I do know this - if the Peoria Unified family comes together, if we listen to each other, if we work hard, and most importantly, if we care about each other and we care about each other’s safety and well being, we will succeed. We will come out on the other end of this stronger and better prepared to meet the next challenges that we may face.”