A week ago, Arizona K-12 public schools began offering on-site student support services to those who need a place to do distance learning or require additional support. Here’s how it’s working.
Public schools are required to provide these services for students in need, special education students, English Language Learners and foster children to comply with Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive orders.
In Dysart Unified School District, just under six percent of students are taking part in on-site learning labs during remote learning, said Renée Ryon, director of communications and public relations for the school district that serves more than 24,000 pre-K through high school students northwest of Phoenix in El Mirage, Glendale, Surprise, Youngtown, and Maricopa County.
“Our schools have been very innovative in their health and safety practices – trying to keep families together and group students at regular tables in order to reduce the number of individual interactions,” Ryon said.
But 20 percent of David Crockett Elementary School students showed up for on-site support services on the first day last week.
“These are families whose parents have to go to work,” Dr. Arlene Kennedy, superintendent of Balsz School District, which serves more than 2,340 Phoenix students, who are predominantly Latino and Black with many from immigrant, refugee, homeless and from other marginalized communities, told azfamily.
The governor’s decision “to require on-site support services and to tie that to available funding without any clear direction as to what those requirements actually are” has added to the pressure on school districts, said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said she’s been hearing from school leaders as they adapt to this new normal.
“Schools are providing critical support and it is anything but easy, but the students being served are truly in need of these supports,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“I heard from Tucson Unified last week that across their district of over 47,000 students, they provided about 1,000 students a safe space to learn, many of them dealing with homelessness,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“Every Arizonan must continue to do their part to slow the spread of COVID so all students can return to classrooms as soon as it is safely possible,” Supt. Hoffman said.
What’s happening in two Phoenix area districts
Each school district developed their own plan, notified parents who was eligible, explained how many students could take part in the program on each campus due to physical space, staffing, social distancing and COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and encouraged parents to sign up their children for the service early.
“We have 60 spots open on each campus for our General Learning Labs, for a total of 1,440 seats, and additional space available for our Specialized Learning Labs for our Exceptional Student Services students who need specialized in-person supports,” Ryon said. “There are 160 ESS students attending across all sites.”
English Language Learners and foster students are included in Dysart Unified’s General Learning Labs, Ryon said.
“The first week went very well and was highly attended. Our parents are happy to have a safe, supervised location where their children can participate in online learning,” Ryon said.
Dysart Unified has a wait list for all elementary school sites and is working hard to accommodate as many students as is safely possible, Ryon said. Some sites accepted more than the initial 60-student limit, dependent on their staffing and space availability.
More funding would help pay for more staff to work with students, Ryon said.
“Right now, our biggest challenge is that our teachers are teaching remote classes, so the staffing of our Learning Labs must be done through our Community Education Department and other support staff positions. We are even utilizing our bus drivers to support the Learning Labs right now,” Ryon said.
“As we begin to provide bus services for our ESS students that have it listed in their Individual Education Plan, staffing will become even more of a challenge,” Ryon said.
Meanwhile, Tolleson Union High School District sought and received a waiver for providing on-site support services for students in need, because the communities they serve are hot spots for COVID-19 right now.
Like many other school districts, Tolleson Union spend the past weeks preparing for students, but public health data indicated they could not do so safely for students or staff, Superintendent Nora Gutierrez told azfamily.
The most recent data from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health Dashboard for School Benchmarks indicated substantial risk in Tolleson’s school district boundaries with 235 cases of coronavirus per 100,000 people and a 19% positivity rate. The district plans to continue online learning through the first-quarter.
School districts that provide the Arizona Department of Education documentation in the form of a letter from their county health department and the Arizona Department of Health Services will be granted waivers from providing on-site student support services under the Governor’s Executive Order. Supt. Hoffman said.
School districts may also meet the requirements to receive a waiver if they are located on tribal lands under a stay at home order issued by a sovereign tribal government.
“Schools will continue to need some sort of relief valve as they continue to provide a safe space for students and as the virus progresses through school communities,” Supt. Hoffman said. “Which is exactly why ADE has partnered with the Governor’s Office to provide nearly $1.2 million in discretionary CARES Act dollars to the Valley of the Sun YMCA and Arizona Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs – so community organizations can help fill gaps and provide safe spaces for students. We hope to identify other community partners.”
Pressure on remote, rural schools
The Pima, Santa Cruz, Cochise and Yuma County representatives of the Arizona Border County Coalition sent a letter to Gov. Ducey last week saying that his Executive Order doesn’t recognize that there is an actual limit on the number of students who can receive on-site support services due to physical distancing and other directives to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 and asked him to revise his Executive Order.
For example, the high-level of need of Nogales Unified School District students, means that the district would be required to provide on-site services to 90 percent of its 5,600 students five days a week. Eighty-two percent of Nogales Unified students receive free- or reduced-price lunch, 11 percent are students with disabilities, 21 percent are English Language Learners, and 2 percent are foster children.
“It is the local school boards that best know their capabilities and resources, along with in-depth knowledge of the facilities available at the schools, so they are best-equipped to define and implement the optimal plan to move forward during the pandemic,” Sharon Bronson, Bruce Bracker, Ann English and Tony Reyes wrote in the letter. “Executive Order 2020-51 has tied the hands of school boards throughout the state and puts students, faculty and their families at risk of falling prey to COVID-19.”
Nogales Unified School District sought a waiver for providing on-site student support services during online instruction based on the incidence of COVID-19 in their communities being above 7 percent, but it was denied by the Santa Cruz County Health Director, Supt. Fernando Parra said.
“The Governing Board did approve to provide on-site services starting Aug. 24 for our self-contained/special education students/sub-group only,” Supt. Parra said.
Forty of the 115 students in Nogales Unified self-contained/special education students attended on-site Services in small groups at four different sites – an exceptional pre-school, an elementary school, a middle school and a high school, Supt. Parra said.
“We received very positive feedback from some of the parents/grandparents of the students that attended today,” Supt. Parra said on Monday.
Online learning continued for self-contained/ special education students who decided not to attend the on-site services, Supt. Parra said.
“We have provided 4,300 devices to all the students/families who have requested (them) and hundreds of Wi-fi Hotspots for our families. Each student per family received their own devices,” Supt. Parra said.
“Our online program is not perfect, as we can never replace in- person instruction, but our online program (platforms with direct teacher instruction) has been successful servicing 5,700 students district-wide,” Supt Parra said.
Nogales Unified used the CARES Funding to purchase the technology tools, support and cover all the COVID-19 expenditures including all the cleaning equipment – machines and all the essentials for cleaning/disinfecting, Supt. Parra said.
Access to technology and the internet remains a problem across the state, Supt. Hoffman said.
“In the beginning of summer, ADE formed a Technology Task Force to address these longstanding issues that were only worsened by the need for distance learning. The Task Force is actively working on finding innovative solutions for these difficult to solve problems,” Supt. Hoffman said.
About five percent of the 4,000 students in Bullhead City Elementary School District were invited to take part in on-site support services and about half of them did. A third of the English Language Learners in Colorado River Union High School District invited back to campus took advantage of that and students who need internet access and some special education students also are using on-site services, said Lance Ross, director of public and community relations for both districts in Mohave County.
“The parents who loved it really loved it. The parents who always complain found reason to do so, often with incomplete information,” Ross said. “Faculty members have worked hard, both for our regular semester, which started July 29 – earlier than most Phoenix-area schools – and the special services classes that started last week.”
Since student supervision during distance learning at third-party off-site safe sites like the Boys & Girls Clubs has reached capacity, “we’re looking for additional safe locations that qualify,” Ross said.
The elementary school district is also looking for more Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots for students, Ross said.
“We did create several additional positions using CARES money, and they came in handy when faculty returned last month and especially when targeted kids returned last week,” Ross said.
Bullhead City Elementary also used CARES funds to hire more health assistants to check temperatures of faculty, staff and students, and deal with some routine issues to free up school nurses and health aides for more more intense concerns, Ross said.
At the high schools, the first week went well, said Darolene Brown, director of curriculum and instructional technology for Colorado River Union High School District.
“Some transportation issues needed to be worked out, but the numbers have increased. Students who said that they were staying home online, have now chosen to come to the school sites,” Brown said.
Right now, the funding is not an issue, as much as staffing is, and we need to get more staff in place as the numbers increase, Brown said.
“Our students, parents and staff have been amazing with how they are adjusting to remote learning,” Ryon said. “We know that it hasn’t been easy for anyone, but it’s so exciting to see how we can work together to make certain that valuable educational experiences continue, even during this pandemic.”