Like an old-fashioned game of freeze tag, many norms synonymous with going back to school are at a standstill until things can somewhat melt back to normal.
On the heels of the lifting of statewide stay-at-home orders, the anticipation of next steps increased for parents, teachers, and students who were either eager or dredging the beginning of a new school year.
Any other school year, students and parents might be marking calendars for the first day of school with traditions that often would have included buying a host of school supplies and clothing mainly for students in kindergarten through high school.
However, the countdown to the first day for schools in Arizona was suspended on June 29 as Gov. Doug Ducey declared schools statewide are to delay opening its classroom doors and freeze “in-person learning” until Aug. 17, though schools can opt to offer distance learning before then.
He enacted the order in the wake of a surge of reported COVID-19 cases statewide, but in particular Maricopa County, the state’s most populous county.
Meanwhile, educators, students and parents now have additional time to prepare for meeting many of the new challenges presented for the upcoming school year, including adjusting to such things as the recommended safety and health standards, social distancing in classrooms, virtual learning, among others.
“Our schools need as much stability and certainty as possible during these most uncertain of times,” said Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman in a prepared statement.
She and the governor announced a plan called, “AZCares: Flexibility And Funding For Schools And Families,” which included an allotted $270 million to assist Arizona public schools in efforts to open safely when the school year starts, according to a press release.
The funding plan recommended and outlined necessary accommodations to allow remote learning, address achievement gaps and bridge “the digital divide” while the education system is confronted by complications of dealing with COVID-19.
In addition to the $270 million in one-time funding from the Governor’s Office, the Arizona Department of Education is providing more than $25 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, totaling $850 million in one-time new funding toward education due to the CARES Act passed in March.
“This plan provides schools with the flexibility to ensure Arizona students continue to receive a quality education --- whether through distance learning or in the classroom --- and provides parents with options that work best for their families,” stated Gov. Ducey.
He also issued an executive order noted to streamline the purchasing process for schools to get personal protective equipment and other COVID-19-related costs. The order also provides flexibility to schools offering virtual learning opportunities for families whose children do not return to the traditional classroom environment.
“This plan will help schools provide adaptable and flexible learning environments for students, families, and teachers and help operationalize the guidance provided in our roadmap to reopening schools.. While many unknowns remain, our school communities are resilient, and I know they will rise to meet this moment for public education,” Ms. Hoffman said.
The consensus from local school representatives was planning was still in the works regarding specifics for the upcoming school year.
“This is yet to be determined through our planning process,” said Amy M. Bolton, Scottsdale Unified School District spokeswoman.
Noting that the district is in the midst of welcoming its new superintendent, Dr. Scott Menzel, who hails from Michigan, she advised that more information on back-to-school plans is expected at the July 7 Governing Board meeting and that updates would be posted at the district website.
Even before his official first day in the office, Dr. Menzel has addressed the rapidly changing atmosphere and expectations of the 2020-2021 school year amid ongoing coronavirus concerns.
“Right now, the focus is on the upcoming school year and all of the questions related to what that looks like for students, families, teachers and support staff. We are working on defining what Scottsdale Unified’s approach will be to the appropriate protocols to ensure the health, safety and well-being of students and staff,” he said.
“Our goal is to do everything we can to create safe, healthy and supportive learning environments while offering robust options for in-person and remote learning for the upcoming school year that take into account the unique needs of families.”
--- Dr. Scott Menzel
Heidi Hurst, Mesa Public Schools director of communications and engagement, encouraged reviewing the district’s initial plan at the district’s website, which includes information on in-person, modified, and remote learning options available to students.
“Although the district released its initial school opening plan on Thursday, June 18, there are still many logistics being worked out before the final plan is released July 14,” Ms. Hurst said.
Likewise, despite to-be-determined details and some uncertainty about how schools would approach the upcoming school year in terms of schedules, masks, desk arrangements, and lunch/recess, many of the districts throughout the Valley issued statements on their respective websites.
Paradise Valley School District Superintendent Dr. Jesse Welsh noted that his district would release the next bout of information on Wednesday, July 1 after he shared a message in June regarding PVOnline course offerings, hybrid learning accommodations and other pertinent school news at pvschools.net.
“While the 2019-2020 school year is just ending, I know that reopening of school for 2020-2021 is at the top of everyone’s mind. We are working to develop plans to ensure the safety of students and staff for return to school in August, and are also planning for contingency scenarios, such as delaying opening due to a spike in cases, or moving instruction online at a school(s) based on the need to do so.
It is certainly my hope that, barring events beyond our control, we are able to open much as planned, with additional safety measures in place to ensure the health and safety of students and staff,” stated Dr. Welsh in a letter posted on the school's site.