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Changing COVID-19 metrics allows Scottsdale Schools to stagger second-semester opening

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Among New Year’s resolutions within the Scottsdale Unified School District is one that has been made before: deciding when it’s safe for students to return to learn in person amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

For the second semester, students will have varying start dates according to grade levels and learning specialties. It's a plan approved by Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board members on Dec. 15, coming on the end of the first semester.

The phased-in schedule was implemented earlier this year, when deciding Return to Learn plans for the first semester to accommodate students opting for on campus education verses online.

When students return from winter break, Dec. 21—Jan. 1, followed by school closed on Jan. 18 for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day, returning to in-person learning is as follows:

  • Monday, Jan. 4: Pre-K, elementary and special education self-contained students will return for full-day, in-person learning, using the current schedule.
  • Monday, Jan. 11: Middle school students will return for in-person learning, using the current schedule; learning will be virtual the week of Jan. 4.
  • Tuesday, Jan. 19: High school students will return for in-person learning, using the current schedule; learning will be virtual the weeks of Jan. 4 and 11.
  • Each K-8 school is allowed some flexibility to determine if Jan. 4 or 11 is an appropriate return date for its grade 6-8 students with principals informing families directly of the decision.

“As you know, this has been a challenging time for all of us as we work to navigate the COVID crisis,” said Dr. Scott Menzel, SUSD superintendent, at the meeting.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Arizona Department of Health Services previously advised districts to return to virtual learning with onsite support when all three benchmarks were red. But, changed its stance as more research emerged on COVID-19 transmission and schools.

On Dec. 16, Dr. Menzel penned a letter to SUSD families describing the county’s latest COVID-19 data, which shows all three benchmark metrics — the number of cases per 100,000 people, the percentage of positive tests and the percentage of COVID-like cases being seen at local hospitals — are red for SUSD’s ZIP codes, which indicates substantial coronavirus spread in the community, for the first time since the summer.

Scottsdale Schools includes more than 25 campuses reaching students in Scottsdale, Phoenix and Tempe.

However, Dr. Menzel is optimistic about effective treatments and FDA-approved vaccines arriving for school staff and mentioned 10,000 doses of the vaccine soon to be ready for school personnel.

“The public health agencies to which we look for guidance have updated their recommendations this week. They now embrace the kind of building-by-building approach SUSD has been using in recent months, in consultation with MCDPH, to help determine whether schools should remain open for in-person learning,” Dr. Menzel said.

Opening schools

Detailing how the district started with the phase-in strategy in September, easing students from kindergarten and special education self-contained classes to high schoolers back to the buildings, Dr. Menzel described how difficult it is for the most vulnerable populations to do online work.

Of particular note, Dr. Menzel pointed out 26 buildings remained open and three closed during the first half of the year, but was pleased that the district was able to get through the first semester challenges.

“We’ve learned a lot about how the mitigation strategy seemed to be working,” he said differentiating between outbreaks and “worrisome transmission in the building.”

With a goal of safely returning to in person instruction, Dr. Menzel noted there are ways to gauge active and potential levels, track data in real time to avoid arbitrarily closing schools.

With likely COVID spread increasing during holidays in the community and in family circles, the district will keep monitoring the metrics with MCDPH during winter break, and revising the reopening plan if new data suggests, Dr. Menzel said.

The superintendent added many reports suggested stopping indoor dining and group athletic activities, but none recommended closing schools.

“As we’ve heard and we’ve seen, there is an important function that schools play — not only in supporting the educational progress of our students. Many have argued that schools are actually safer for our students than not being in our schools. In fact, where we see transmission is in small group gatherings and in some of these other environments, indoor dining, for example. This is a partnership as we talked about many times,” Dr. Menzel said.

“We have an ability to open our schools and keep them open.”

Pointing out the “legitimate concern about a potential COVID spike after the New Year’s celebrations,” Dr. Menzel and board members encouraged parents to strongly consider the online schooling option after the break, especially if students and family members were possibly exposed to the virus in their surroundings.

“If you do not feel safe sending your child to school, EDL is an option,” said board member Barbara Perleberg, encouraging parents to keep your child home, take responsibility and help the community with efforts to keep students in school.

While SUSD board member Jann-Michael Greenburg said he favored the phased-in efforts as long as the health departments are advising on every step, Patty Beckman, vice president, stressed to continue involving the community in every step to allow more conversations if matters were not working out with learning models, metrics, etc.

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