The Peoria Unified School District Governing Board voted, 3-2, Aug. 27 against opening schools fully for in-person instruction on Sept. 8.
Governing board members Beverly Pingerelli and Judy Doane voted for the motion and Monica Ceja-Martinez, Cory Underhill and President David Sandoval voted against it.
Ms. Pingerelli requested a hard date be set for a full re-opening because she said the longer virtual learning occurs, the more damage will be done to children and families.
Parents are struggling, some working on weekends so they can take time off during the week, and the virtual instruction program Florida Virtual is not working for the younger students, she said.
“The benchmarks are guidelines only. This is a novel virus, and there are no experts on this particular virus. We are changing and adapting as we have experience with the virus,” she said. “All around us schools are opening and they are opening with robust safety plans. I think Peoria has always been a leader, and I think now Peoria is following. COVID is increasing the education gap and we are doing more harm than good.”
Ms. Doane also supported a set date to return to school because children are not learning, she said.
“They’re not. Some of them are if they have the drive and the ability, but it’s bad for them to sit in front of the screen all day... It’s not the appropriate learning environment. What are we doing? We are a school district. We are not teaching children. That’s not happening. We are failing them,” she said.
“More people die from car accidents than COVID, do we tell everybody to not drive? ... People die all the time and god knows, I am sorry that death happens. I’m sorry that it happens to anybody but it happens to everybody. And the world does not stop. When my mother died, the world did not stop. The world does not stop for death. Death happens every day, every minute. I don’t mean to sound callous. I don’t feel callous. I am very concerned for those who are affected. ... COVID is not the biggest threat to our children. Being out of school is helping to destroy families, lives.”
Arizona Department Health Services recommends the following benchmarks be met prior to offering any in-person learning:
The three governing board member who voted against the Sept. 8 opening stated these benchmarks should be the basis for opening school, and the board voted as such in July, 4-1, with Ms. Doane dissenting.
Mr. Sandoval said the primary goal of an educational system is to keep children in school. He said teachers want their kids back but in an environment that is safe with heath and wellness at top of mind.
A face-to-face environment is optimal, without question, he said.
“I still believe in an effort to move forward in a responsible way to further open the doors of our district, but we need to follow the data and science to drive us. It is very, very important as we plan to ensure the voices of all our stakeholders are being included in those conversations. I do believe having that knowledge from those in the field — that being the teachers, parents, staff and students — it makes us smarter. It allows us to do this in a way that is right.”
A medical advisory committee was created earlier this month to guide Peoria Unified School District on a path to reopening based on pandemic health benchmarks established by Arizona Department of Health Services.
The committee has met with administration and advised the district to follow the benchmarks. The meeting was not public.
Ms. Ceja Martinez said there is still not a full picture of those students and families who may need help during this pandemic. She said she has received numerous emails regarding opening school and they are mainly from those living north of bell, which raises a lot of questions.
“When a child’s life is lost, it affects not just that family but that classroom, school site and the community,” she said. “Unfortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to visit those school sites during a time of loss and it is catastrophic. Here is an opportunity based on the medical advisory committee to keep schools closed until we figure it out as a leadership team how to work within those safe environments.”
The decision of when to return to school fully has been hotly divided.
The district received more than 200 comments in advance of the public meeting, Aug. 27. Officials opted not to read all of them in the interest of time, which drew ire from many watching the meeting virtually.
About 66% of the comments were in favor of reopening, 22% not in favor, and 12% other. Officials decided to read the comments in the order they were received in proportion to the percentage of their stance, based on guidance from the Arizona School Boards Association.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.