Under the looming air of COVID-19, the saying: “We’re all in this together” is not just words for the Scottsdale Unified School District as efforts are underway to make the best accommodations for students, parents, faculty and staff.
Thousands of viewers tuned in for the 5 p.m. live YouTube broadcast on July 7, watching SUSD Governing Board members wearing face masks and using hand wipes to sanitize shared areas as they sat properly-distanced to discuss concerns about the ever-changing upcoming school year.
The discussion follows executive orders by the Arizona governor to delay the reopening of campuses until Aug. 17.
Despite the fluid narrative, SUSD district leaders are rigorously preparing for a new learning environment upon the start of the 2020-21 school year that requires a whole revamping of past policies and changing much of what was normal and systemic for k-12 from learning in the classrooms to learning at home.
No definitive action was taken at the meeting’s broadcast, but board members agreed to further discuss details on Thursday, July 9, clarifying plans for when school is set to reopen as members were cautiously optimistic about the pending start date.
Board members and viewers witnessed a Powerpoint presentation on proposed teaching and learning models, safety measures, social and emotional support plans along with projected start dates of instruction including a Full Return Onsite learning model for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade; Hybrid learning for kindergarten through 12th; and fully online learning for kindergarten through 12th grade.
The SUSD Governing Board President Allyson Beckham welcomed the new SUSD Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel, who took the opportunity at his first official board meeting to describe his transition during the height of COVID-19 closures and changes for schools nationwide.
“It’s been an interesting three months of transition,” Dr. Scott Menzel said.
“We are still dealing with the challenges of COVID. So, tonight we are excited to bring forward the recommendations that are a result of work that started at the end of last school year. The options in front of this evening reflect the best that we can suggest for our parents in a less than optimal environment.”
--- Dr. Scott Menzel
Suggesting a buffer week for planning and implementation, he said the district has to be “nimble and flexible,” when preparing for the in-person return to school that many personnel and families desire.
Stressing the importance of feedback, he introduced a new online communication tool called “Let’s Talk” for internal and external stakeholders to access at susd.org/letstalk to share suggestions, questions, comments, especially about the “framework,” proposed for the students’ new learning methods and environment.
Dr. Kimberly Guerin, assistant superintendent of SUSD Education Services, said many hope to return to school as expressed by participants surveyed in June. She addressed the district’s educational concerns along with health and safety issues that were included in a plan to provide the “SUSD family with choices to meet their needs.”
She outlined the district’s “Return to Learn Plan” drafted by the district’s Incident Command System under the direction of Dr. Milissa Sackos, assistant superintendent of SUSD Secondary Education, and three subcommittees comprised of teachers, parents, SUSD officials who brainstormed about how to accommodate all involved in the district.
“Every time we took two steps forward our existing suggestions changed,” Ms. Guerin said.
Citing necessary logistics, operations, and socialization with educating students and how they are impacted, she said not only is the primary goal educating, but providing safety for students, staff and families was foremost along with fiscal responsibility and working within constraints during a pandemic.
“We have priorities for reopening and these priorities are tried and true,” she added.
Representing the operations and logistics committee, Dennis Roehler told board members that there were so many challenges such as addressing the feasibility of social distancing in classrooms, cafeterias, hallways, student recess, teacher breaks, and more.
He said a lot contributed to difficult conversations that required the need for additional staff, supervision that is not readily available.
“Social distancing stood in the way of a well-rounded social, emotional, academic day. Any way we looked at it, every time we looked at it. It was social distancing that became a problem,” Mr. Roehler said, asking how does a child not touch a ball during recess.
“Human nature is not going to maintain social distancing,” Mr. Roehler said.
However, Mr.Roehler said there will be no justifiable excuse to allow anybody to congregate, which includes prohibiting “the popular kids at a table” in the cafeteria, due to current circumstances.
“All of the cafeteria food will be prepared and ready to go --- not buffet-style like the past,” he added.
Detailing what was needed to maintain government-mandated recommendations as COVID-19 cases soar, he stated that consistency is key and the timing to return to classrooms must be right, enforcing hygiene practices such as students and staff staying home if sick or if anyone in their household is sick;
washing hands, practicing social distancing, wearing masks that “will actually help them keep their hands out of their face,” putting extra handwashing stations such as portable equipment on campuses, keeping personal and shared spaces clean are all significant.
As far as the classroom setting, students cannot share supplies like scissors, writing utensils and more. There will need to be at least three feet of distance between desks, Mr. Roehler said, noting that furniture may need to be removed from classrooms including bookshelves and desks; classroom seating must be in the same direction; and each classroom must be supplied with sanitizing products
“Transportation is a tough one. Buses are only so big and there are only so many seats,” Mr. Roehler said, questioning how the number of students on a bus will be minimized and buses totally cleaned.
While the highest participation rates for the survey were from Desert Mountain and Chapparal, Dr. Guerin noted that most people surveyed in June indicated that they wanted to have a full onsite return to school and it was agreed that the majority of parents and teachers favored a full onsite learning option.
While online options appealed to staff, many parents and students were un-enthused as a hybrid model generated some interest.
“The majority of parents and students were in favor of returning to the classroom,” Ms. Guerin said, adding that only about 20% were interested in online.
“We know the situation is fluid.”
In coming days, parents will be asked to select for their children whether they preferred the option of a full-time, full-day in-school attendance for PreK-12 with safety measures such as physical distancing and wearing masks.
She added that district-issued Chrome books will be provided for students and that other factors to consider include having sufficient enrollment numbers; providing lunches for those who come on campus, elementary students needing more support at home.
“Full social distancing cannot be guaranteed. There are benefits and challenges to all of our models,” said Ms. Guerin, describing the general consensus that everyone wants “to get back to how school was” and that students learn better in the classroom.
What she called a sense of normalcy involving building relationships with teachers and peers, she expressed the difficulties of not being able to guarantee the six feet of social distancing but said the district is comfortable with its safety models instituted.
She noted that most other districts are not adding a hybrid model --- a combination of in-class learning and remote access at home --- to the learning format due to challenges it presents like reducing classroom sizes and time on campus.
SUSD high schools already offers the option to take online classes and attend school in person. But, there are benefits and challenges to offering and managing hybrid classes.
Teachers, students and parents will still need to be educated on learning on how to use certain platforms for any online classes operated, Dr. Menzel said, noting that additional staff will need to be hired plus substitute teachers who will even need training on the system and subjects to fill in during teacher absences.
Ms. Guerin noted that a reduction in student numbers is expected with the options of online learning that include hybrid classes that will be operated based on interest and workable schedules, which often tends to cause confusion, while distance learning classes online are more manageable.
Noting that many districts are trying to develop an online program, Ms. Guerin said SUSD teachers have taught a “tried and true program” for 10 years that is well-regarded, interactive and important to students who participate in Scottsdale online, which is an accredited online program that even allows students to meet extracurricular needs.
She encouraged families to not only choose an appropriate model for students for a year or a semester for consistency, but make a commitment to enroll students for at least one semester online as the benefits of Scottsdale online offers the flexibility for students to work at their own pace and take a class even if there is only one student interested.
Board members and viewers also heard about the emotional aspect of the entire community that has been impacted by the pandemic, which has been triggering for the last several months, as presented by SUSD Director of Support Services Shannon Cronn, reminding faculty and staff that the employee assistance program is available and to remember to “validate feelings” for everyone like students who may need more intense support from designated teams, interventions.
Also, parents are considered since many may work all day and not have much time to devote to assist with student assignments in the new learning environment and models.
“For working parents, that’s the last thing they want to do is to be tied up with that. I would hope that we are coming up with solutions now,” said SUSD Governing Board Vice President Patty Beckman, adding that WiFi and working parents continue to be an issue, especially if all the kids at home cannot be online at the same time.
“I am confident that we can get it done,” she said. “These kids have been home since March.”