Nearly 25 callers expressing concern, contempt, commendation and confusion on the Scottsdale Unified School District’s plan for in-person learning waited in a queue to be patched through.
Governing board members met in the Coronado High School Board Room/Lecture Hall, 7501 E. Virginia Ave., on Tuesday, Aug. 18, for about five hours, including an executive session, during the live-streamed regular meeting.
After approving consent agenda items, members entertained public calls consumed by the topic of reopening school campuses for in-person instruction mandated by the governor for state schools to initially resume on Aug. 17.
Instead, the SUSD board decided in July to delay start of district on-campus learning until at least Sept. 8 because COVID-19 information and circumstances remain fluid along with the date to start in-class school.
A committee recently was formed to present details of meeting safety benchmarks suggested by state and county officials on opening schools for students, faculty and staff in time for the delayed “soft” opening to prepare, troubleshoot and receive feedback from stakeholders.
“I’d be completely surprised if we can have a full return on Sept. 8,” said SUSD Superintendent Dr. Scott A. Menzel.
He noted the likelihood of re-introducing a hybrid learning model for students, although the option was previously abandoned when first presented because of many complications involved with students dividing their learning time between taking classes on campus and online.
To ease an eventual return, Dr. Menzel suggested students return in phases with priority given to those needing the most attention including kindergarten through second grades; special education and English language learners who may have the “greatest need first.”
“In the summer, all parents were given a survey and a choice,” said Ryan Lurie, noting how many parents decided on the learning models presented that seemed best for their children at the time.
With comments limited to three minutes, from the first to the last caller, all shared the same sentiment of wanting a “choice.”
Stating their vast and fast needs, some callers were willing “risk” their children coming to school immediately amidst the COVID-19 scare. Some wished not to send kids back during the pandemic.
Others stated a desire to seek options such as private schools, and more.
Other callers shared how families are stressed from home-schooling requirements on parents and children, and some noted psychological damages attributed to the forced home-confined studies.
“The ramifications of what they are doing mentally to the children,” said Mr. Lurie, adding that keeping schools closed and children at home gives “zero evidence” of stopping the virus spread. He even questioned “manipulated data.”
Encouraging “people calling in talking about masks, hand washing,” to use the online learning option for fear of sending their kids to school, Lauren Lurie said, “This should be about choice.”
She sought the option to send her kids to school rather than risk them sitting in front of a computer screen so teachers cannot see what they are doing online and make needed corrections.
“I am now forced to sit in front of the computer screen for almost six hours,” said Elizabeth “Liz” Walter, a mother of three Keeva Elementary students, describing herself as a “huge proponent of public education.”
Ms. Walter said as much as she supported public education, she was dissatisfied with how things were being handled during the pandemic.
“It’s letting us down,” said Ms. Walter, a working parent who cried on the phone and emphasized how her children also cry over the frustrating situation.
“We are now looking at private education. They give families options. These kids need school. I see young children losing their hair.”
“No disrespect to the last caller, it sounds like she’s going through a lot,” said Jason Laytos, whose children are 5 and 8, adding that he is fortunate to stay home with them and they love it.
Mr. Laytos asked how the district would enforce mask wearing and social distancing for young children like his kindergartner and third-grader as they not only impact those in school but at homes where high-risk relatives may reside because he cares for his mother and 92-year-old grandmother.
“I don’t see how you can guarantee that kind of safety. They don’t know any better,” he added just as his time ran out.
Heather Pyle, mother of a freshman and junior in the district, commented on the many dangers children face from dealing with rampant school shootings to possibly being in a car accident.
“Thank you for taking my call. . . I miss you and I stand with you and the teachers,” Ms. Pyle said.
Then, she spoke of “freedom of choice,” not only for those uncomfortable returning to the classroom but for parents, teachers and students who want in-person learning.
She gave an example of schools not shutting down indefinitely before because of past pandemics including mass school shootings that plagued the nation. Necessary precautions were taken, she said, and classes continued accordingly.
“I am asking for choice. When we think about it, there were school shootings, but precautions were taken. Parents were terrified to send them to school during the Polio outbreak. It will not be the fault of the school district,” she said.
“My child is likely to die in a car accident. We are willing to take the risks.
I am very concerned about the direction we are going as a nation. I don’t mean to abandon public schools, but I will look for other options.”
Ten people were in the queue at 6:35 p.m. when Dr. Menzel asked to close comments at 6:40 p.m. as people continued joining after public comments started.
He advised board members of standard public comment protocol from limiting the time to having people sign up to speak before the regular meetings began; and not continuously add people wanting to speak.
“To our passionate callers, if you can keep it under three, thank you,” said SUSD Board Member Barbara Perleberg.
Dr. Menzel and board members sat patiently, however, as calls continued hours later like a telethon.
“Online learning is no way to learn for children. It is the opposite of what I heard,” said Sarah Dorn, the mother of a fourth- and sixth-grader, who have both shed “tears multiple times,” since struggling to learn at home.
“For everyone that says it’s dangerous, there are numbers that say otherwise.
It is unfair. We know the risk and are willing to take them. This problem requires creative solutions,” Ms. Dorn said.
Brittany Walker, who taught in the district, called the situation unfair for her as a mom and someone trained to “teach a love of learning,” as a teacher watching children cry about school.
“This is awful. Everything I ever learned, all the training is out the window. Kids learn hands on. It’s not healthy for them. It’s very, very sad what is happening,” Ms. Walker said, noting that her kids are on a charter school waiting list but the school is so full they cannot get in yet.
“Do I get my taxes back? Come on guys. This is not ok. You all know it. This is not how kids learn.”
Following a host of comments from scientific findings stated by a couple of district parents who are doctors to distraught parents adding about their tearful children, David Ardisma discouraged people from getting “emotional” and from basing decisions on “emotions and not on facts.”
One fact, Mr. Ardisma claims is children are less likely than adults to transmit the disease; and at no point does data prove the benefits of shutting down schools.
“Give people a choice. . . Are we worried about emotions or are we worried about the data? Care about the families and care about the children,” he said.
Sara Waterman, who has kindergarten twins, a third- and fifth-grader, described a home learning environment filled with “attention wanderers,” Internet problems and more.
“It’s a disaster. It’s not working for them and it’s not working for me. The goalposts kept moving. I love public education, I grew up in public education,” Ms. Waterman said.
Recalling the “less than optimal environment that the SUSD has put together as we tread these unchartered waters,” Dr. Menzel said resuming in-class schooling “quickly doesn’t mean compromising the safety.”
He added he is not telling teachers and staff to return to school while the district may be considered in a red category before meeting suggested benchmarks from the Arizona Department of Health Services because they have options to teach online, resign or take leave of absence.
Likewise, Mr. Greenburg spoke of the real risks of reopening and suggested following the metrics guidance to the “T” while trying to make as smooth a transition as possible.
As much as he wants all students to remain in the district, he said, he cannot stop people from making their decisions.
“Leave SUSD and go to private schools. That is your choice. That is your prerogative,” he said.