Scottsdale couple has ‘Return to Learn’ prescription, perspective

Posted 9/16/20

Scottsdale Unified School District parents Drs. Andrew Duarte and Melissa Lewis-Duarte are encountering issues surrounding “Return to Learn” efforts from recently learning of children being shifted to other schools to students not having the same teachers.

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Scottsdale couple has ‘Return to Learn’ prescription, perspective


Scottsdale Unified School District parents Drs. Andrew Duarte and Melissa Lewis-Duarte are encountering issues surrounding “Return to Learn” efforts from recently learning of children being shifted to other schools to students not having the same teachers.

After discussions with other concerned families who disagree with the district’s decision to begin in-person learning, the couple seek a better prescription on how the district can welcome students back to campus better during the pandemic.

Joining viewers for the Sept. 15 live-streamed board meeting, the couple is among thousands of parents with opposing views who recently communicated their hesitations and interests to the SUSD board.

“We’ve also had a chance to gain new information since the meeting last night,” said Dr. Lewis-Duarte, who said she was shocked to receive a social media screenshot from a friend showing the Cherokee Elementary School principal reportedly announcing how the school would absorb 14 students from Cochise’s first grade, which is the home school and grade level of one of the couple’s three children.

“Imagine finding out your kid was being kicked to another school on a Facebook feed not even directed to you,” she said.

“We were told to select [enhanced distance learning] in order to keep our home school and teacher. We were promised this was the only way to maintain consistency and that transitioning back to school would be done within the CDC guidelines. We feel completely misled and trampled over by the board.”

After speaking with Cochise Principal Sheila Miller, Dr. Lewis-Duarte recognized the principal “is scrambling to find the best solution for everyone.”

“We are also confident the teachers are trying their best to make this work,” she said.

“The problem is the board has really left them with a mess to clean up. The board should have stuck to the plan, the plan set forth by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and [Arizona Department of Health Services]. We now have schools going back to essentially a full return, having skipped the hybrid transition.”

Dr. Lewis-Duarte said she believes the board is mislabeling distance learning as hybrid students.

“How is having 14 first-graders online a hybrid? We could be transitioning to hybrid for just a few weeks to assess the safety, and then back to a full in-person return directly after that,” she said.

“This is what other school districts are doing. The SUSD board caved to a group of loud, uninformed protesters who are failing to keep the greater community at the forefront. It’s a shame. This could have been completely avoided if they had stuck to their original commitment and did the right thing.”

Noting her disappointment regarding SUSD’s decision to open schools, despite recently adopting the Arizona Department of Health Services’ metrics as benchmarks guiding the safe return of children on campuses,

Dr. Lewis-Duarte takes issue with the district proceeding to open although the ADHS coronavirus data reportedly continues to indicate a moderate community spread while the district is categorized in a “yellow” threat level.

“Basing the challenging decision to ‘Return to Learn’ on data, science and best practices to guide our decisions, rather than pressure and emotion, was comforting. This reassured us that our children’s and teachers’ safety was at the forefront of your decision-making process,” she said, adding that this was in alignment with the guidance also established by the CDC.

She referenced the board’s Sept. 9 vote she stated contradicted its commitment to the well-being of children and teachers. Her husband, an attending physician for a Phoenix-area acute care hospital, has witnessed how deadly the coronavirus can be.

State data from ADHS do show, however, improvement in many metrics, including hospitalizations, which are used to make decisions on school openings.

Dr. Lewis-Duarte said that improvement isn’t enough right now to open.

“We are improving, but we’re not where we need to be yet. We may be ‘green’ soon, however rushing to reopen schools can greatly impact these numbers. We are observing this locally with ASU’s reopening and nationally with a recent 16% increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases. Your vote disregards the metrics you said would guide your decisions. You have recklessly decided to ignore data,” she said.

She and her husband detail their parental perspective on their children’s education during the controversial times.

“Online instruction isn’t easy, but we have been satisfied with our experience thus far. Our boys are learning and engaged. Their teachers have made tremendous efforts to adapt and teach the students while giving them opportunities for social interactions,” Dr. Duarte said.

“Online has been hardest for our kindergartener, but even he is participating in online class, learning to be a student and showing growth and development. He even receives speech therapy, occupational therapy and physical therapy via online learning, which we have been grateful to receive. We recognize that this would certainly be a lot more difficult if Melissa wasn’t a stay-at-home mom.”

See more direct answers on their perspective below:

What are your thoughts on the district meeting the metrics/benchmarks set as it has been said that it will be unlikely to reach the “green” category?

The recent improvement in community incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 is a testament to how social responsibility can make a difference in this pandemic. It is encouraging.  People are doing the right thing by wearing masks and social distancing, which is reflected in the improving numbers. 

However, Scottsdale is still in the “yellow/moderate risk for spread” classification. Our national and local health advisory boards recommend a hybrid learning approach in this setting.

Did your child participate in the online instruction and was it easy?

Yes, we opted for the Enhanced Distance Learning model because we were promised it would be the best way to maintain a consistent home school and teacher for our children. Cochise Elementary is our home school and it is our fourth year sending our children there.

We were told our assigned teachers from Cochise would deliver all EDL instruction until the ADHS COVID statistics were yellow and it was deemed safe to return in a hybrid format. We were promised to return to the same school and teacher. This consistency was vitally important to us as it is our third time having Mrs. Holmes for Kindergarten, and second time having Mrs. Wilson for first grade.

Will your children return to school campus?

No, we have selected to remain in the EDL model. We really want our boys to go back to the classroom. There are benefits we just cannot provide at home, and we would never opt for homeschooling under ordinary circumstances. Unfortunately, the SUSD Board opted to ignore the ADHS metrics as a guide to when it would be safe for a reopening as stated by the CDC.

According to the CDC and ADHS, given the current statistics, it is not recommended to go back to full-time in-person learning but a hybrid learning arrangement can be considered. SUSD has changed how it interprets the definition of a hybrid. Months ago, they defined a hybrid as alternating days with half capacity. Their new definition classifies a hybrid as having any number of students learning remotely.

The others are free to return with attempts at distancing and enhanced cleaning measures. As outlined in the meeting this evening, even if there are only a few students staying home, the board is asking parents of in-person classes to sign a liability waiver. Had the board honored their word, we would be sending our boys back to hybrid phased-in approach. They have let us down.

Do you think there will be enough staff to go around for classrooms and online instruction to handle both initiatives?

It is apparent from our discussions with our school principal and the data presented tonight that the majority of parents chose to return to school, well over the 50% they were anticipating, and it is negating a hybrid return. Mr. Greenburg warned of this happening last week and brought it up again during tonight’s meeting.

We believe this happened for several reasons, which we tried to warn the board about last week:

  1. Some parents are ready no matter what the risk;
  2. Some parents thought it must be safe because the board was allowing it, despite going against the CDC and AZDHS recommendations;
  3. When parents received their commitment letters they were met with the threat of losing their assigned teachers and possibly even their home schools. We fear those who chose EDL will be getting the short end of the stick, which Mr. Greenburg also attempted to bring up several times throughout tonight’s meeting. We hope our school and teachers will find a way to make it work for everyone.

Children have a history of being sick/passing germs onto teachers and classmates during the school year, so is the heightened fear justified during the pandemic despite them spreading germs anyway?

We have a unique perspective on coronavirus. Andrew is a physician at a local hospital who performs minimally invasive, image-guided procedures. He has seen firsthand just how sick some of these patients can be.

Also, our youngest son was born extremely premature and on life-support for six months after his birth. We have learned to be vigilant with germs for our family’s safety and don’t want the community at large to have unnecessary risk.

Ordinarily, most communicable diseases transmitted in the classroom are either harmless, self-limited, or vaccinated against. COVID-19 is different. We know it is more contagious than influenza or other minor upper respiratory illnesses. We also know it harms and kills far more people than these diseases.

Additionally, we know absolutely nothing about the long-term consequences of COVID-19. Does it cause chronic cardiorespiratory disease? Neurologic effects? Other complications? We do not have the data yet.

Over time and with adequate testing, we will continue to learn more about this new threat and be better able to counsel people. Until then, a more conservative, safe approach is appropriate.