School boards face tough decisions on when to re-open schools for in-person classes - AZEdNews
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School boards face tough decisions on when to re-open schools for in-person classes

Gateway Polytechnic Academy Students On Their First Day Back To School Aug. 17, 2020. Photo Courtesy Queen Creek Unified School District

Arizona school governing board members are making difficult decisions when to re-open schools closed for the COVID-19 pandemic for in-person instruction for students.

They balance pressure from parents returning to work for a safe, supervised place for their children to learn with the health and safety of students and staff and the additional costs to ensure that.

“The decision to open up our schools was not an easy decision or a decision that I took lightly,” said Jennifer Revolt, Queen Creek Unified School District governing board vice-president.  “I dove into research from many different angles. I also spoke with numerous teachers and staff, and I read all the emails that were sent to me.”

“I realize that in-person may not work for every family at this point, but I also very strongly believe in choice,” Revolt said. “Families need the choice to stay online long-term or to return to school in-person.”

“We should work hard to respect each other’s choices and be supportive of one another,” Revolt said.

Chandler Unified School District school board members and district leaders are listening to parents’ and staff’s concerns, said Supt. Camille Casteel.  

“We’re getting hundreds of emails daily, and we understand that we have those parents who want us to remain closed and those that want us to open,” said Dr. Casteel in a video released Aug. 17.

“I know the school board is anxiously awaiting the data so that we can present on options or the status of where we are when it comes to re-opening as a school district, but it certainly is a possibility that we could open in stages,” Dr. Casteel said.

At a school board meeting held over Zoom last week, the Camp Verde Unified School District Governing Board voted 3 to 2 to start in-person classes on Monday, Aug. 17.  

“I don’t think we’ll ever be safe. But I think we can be safer. I don’t think we’ll be ready by Monday,” said Eric Lawton, a board member who voted no. But Board Member Bob Simbric, who voted yes, said “If we need to watch them, why not teach them?”

“Due to the politically charged nature of the COVID-19 response, as elected officials, school board members are caught between the demands of their constituents, split between reopening and staying closed, and the recommendations of public health officials,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association.

“In the absence of a hard mandate from public health officials, the decision to reopen becomes a judgement call made in an extremely difficult political environment.,” Kotterman said. “It’s probably the hardest time it’s ever been to be a school board member.”

Queen Creek returns to in-person learning

Queen Creek Unified School District re-opened schools for in-person instruction on Monday, Aug. 17.

The feedback from parents and students has been positive, said Samantha Davis, Queen Creek Unified School District governing board member.

“The kids are happy to be back with their peers and learning from their teachers in person. The parents have expressed gratitude for getting their kids off screens and into a positive, safe, learning environment,” Davis said.

Teachers, staff, and administrators worked tirelessly to ensure a positive return to in-person learning and exceeded expectations to ensure students were engaged when learning from home, Davis said.

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Gateway Polytechnic Academy students on their first day back to school Aug. 17, 2020. Photo courtesy Queen Creek Unified School District

The overall health – socially, emotionally, and academically – of students played a large role in decision making, Davis said.

“Schools provide kids with a safe, supportive, structured learning environment,” Davis said. “Public schools also provide essential elements to a child’s overall well-being such as meal assistance, behavioral, physical, social and mental health services.” 

“Since the shutdown of in-person learning, we have seen an increase in depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation,” Davis said. “Many children rely on their schools to provide them with nutrition and safety. When we don’t have schools open for those children, they suffer.”

“Reaching the decision to resume in-person instruction because we believe the best place for kids is in the classroom was easy, but what that decision looked like in action wasn’t as easy,” said Ken Brague, Queen Creek Unified School governing board president.

“Most of our community wanted their kids back in our school buildings receiving in-person instruction,” Brague said. 

Many parents raised concerns that virtual learning was very stressful for their families and that ensuring resources such as computers for each student and Wi-Fi were proving to be difficult, Revolt said.

“Parents were also worried about being able to invest the time into their student’s education while simultaneously trying to provide for their families,” Revolt said.

“As elected officials, we represent our constituents and our duty is to take into account their needs,” Revolt said.

Most of the staff and teachers wanted to go back as well, Brague said. 

Teachers with five to 30 years of classroom experience shared that “it is so difficult to provide quality education in the virtual format,” Revolt said.

“We knew that some staff didn’t share our optimism about opening, so we allowed all teachers the opportunity to get out of their contracts without incurring any damages,” Brague said. “Some took advantage of this, and I absolutely respect everyone’s decision to make the right choice for their own family.”

Many Queen Creek teachers did not want to return to in-person instruction at this point, “and I was actually very surprised by this,” Brague said, noting that showed room for improvement communicating with staff.

As a result, “we need to repair our relationship with teachers,” Brague said.

“We, as a district, have lost some very high-quality employees, because of their desire to protect their families and themselves,” Brague said.  “I am very sad about that loss, and I want to figure out a way to bring the staff who we lost back when and if they want to return.”

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Gateway Polytechnic Academy students on their first day back to school Aug. 17, 2020. Photo courtesy Queen Creek Unified School District

Something to explore moving forward, could be working towards a full-fledged online program staffed with Queen Creek Unified  teachers, Revolt said

“To properly set up a fully comprehensive program like that we are looking at 2-3 year build out,” Revolt said. “If we had something like this in place, we would be able to offer more options.”

“At the end of the day, it really had to come down to what was in the best interest of our students,” Revolt said. “ I believe that most students learn best when they are being taught in-person in our school buildings. So much more happens when they are with their teachers and peers in person.”

In addition, many students have special education learning needs that are not effectively met over a computer, Revolt said.

How public health benchmarks factor in

While school leaders are asked to take into consideration public health benchmark guidelines for returning to in-person instruction , it is not a requirement that they wait until all three indicators are met.

“I was very encouraged to see that Maricopa County as a whole had met two of the three benchmarks set by the Arizona Department of Health Services, and we were moving in the right direction for all three to be met,” said Queen Creek Board Member Davis.

Revolt said she also considered guidance from the American Association of Pediatrics, U.S. Centers for Disease control data, the largest study of  COVID-19 so far in schools as well as “psychologists who spoke of the emotional toll that this epidemic is taking on our students.”

The district also put a considerable amount of time into developing a thorough mitigation plan that would keep students and teachers safe, that follows local, state, and federal guidelines.

That plan includes block scheduling to reduce teachers exposure to students, requiring masks, social distancing when possible, scheduling multiple lunches by grade level, staggered recesses, cleaning desks between classes, taking students’ temperature at start of the day, making parents responsible to screen children, and daily disinfection of classrooms, doorknobs, playground equipment, and more, Brague said.

Chandler Unified Supt. Casteel said they are gathering all the data they can, monitoring COVID-19 exposures they’re aware of, and have invited Maricopa County health officials to the next study session on Aug. 25 to talk about it in more detail.

“It’s obvious that we don’t have a consensus in our community, which makes it very challenging,” Dr. Casteel said.

“We want to open and stay open, and that’s why we’re moving a little cautiously to those of you that want us to open immediately,” Dr. Casteel said. “We don’t want to open and have to turn around and close again so we’re just moving cautiously, and we’ll get there.”

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“Leaders within school communities, like so many other professionals, have had to make unprecedented decisions related to COVID-19 over the past several months,” said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“I strongly urge all school leaders, including school board members to adhere to Arizona Department of Health Services’ public health metrics for reopening schools for in-person teacher-led instruction,” Supt. Hoffman said. “The health and safety of educators, staff members and students is at stake.”

“Nothing about this pandemic is easy, but it is critically important that we make decisions that are grounded in science and data,” Supt. Hoffman said.”

By not establishing the Arizona Department of Health Services public health benchmarks as mandated criteria for re-opening schools, “the state has put all the onus on local school boards to make pretty much every decision about reopening,” Kotterman said.

“While we support local control, it’s not fair to ask volunteers with no background in public health to make decisions about when the spread of an infectious disease is under control enough to reopen,” Kotterman said.

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Without a uniform standard to apply, school districts can craft solutions as they see fit and some districts have reopened.

“Frankly, I think the state did not mandate districts follow the metrics, because that would turn the political ire of parents who want schools to reopen back on state government,” Kotterman said. “It’s easier to pass that decision down the line to school boards and have them deal with it.”

“That would be manageable if Arizona had the public health infrastructure to support those decisions and local public health officials were empowered to make decisions. That hasn’t happened. So here we are,” Kotterman said.

School districts have largely been left to their own devices when trying to determine what the thresholds are for opening and closing based on virus activity.

“Ideally, schools would curtail activity based on the county-wide metrics, but for schools who believe they can reopen before those are met, there isn’t a ready publicly-available data source,” Kotterman said. “It will likely be up to district discretion when they feel they need to close.”

It is challenging to track the spread of COVID-19 in a school district’s community, because no one is required to tell you if they were tested for COVID-19 or what the result was, Kotterman said.

“You’re counting on families to be diligent and do the right thing –  to keep their kids out of school, observe isolation criteria, etc. But not everyone observes the same level of caution with COVID-19,” Kotterman said

What policy makers can do

The Arizona Department of Education is trying to keep up with the demands for information and guidance the best that it can, Kotterman said.

“I am amazed with Arizona schools finding creative ways to connect students to learning during the most challenging school year in memory,” Supt. Hoffman said. “These are truly unprecedented times, but our innovative teachers and school staff are rising to the occasion in service of Arizona’s students.”

“It’s the job of government to give our schools what they need to ensure a safe and healthy school year,” Supt Hoffman said.

Right now, it is past the point where policymakers can make a difference on reopening schools, Kotterman said.

“The time for making policy was months ago. They set the environment by what they did, or didn’t do, during the summer. Now the only way out is the way through,” Kotterman said.

When the Arizona Legislature reconvenes in January, it will need to work through critical issues such as testing, evaluation and more, Kotterman said.

“Maybe Congress will return in September and get some more resources to schools. That would be immensely helpful,” Kotterman said.

Re-opening cancelled and discussed again at J.O. Combs

J.O. Combs Unified School District Governing Board members voted Aug. 10 to start in-person classes on Monday, but classes were cancelled Monday through Wednesday after nearly a hundred teachers and other school staff called out sick.

A special governing board meeting will be held at 6 p.m. tonight to discuss the start of in-person instruction.

The board voted against Supt. Greg Wyman’s recommendation to move in-person education to October, and a motion to forgive a $1,000 penalty for teachers, $2,500 for administrative staff, who decide to break their contract due to COVID-19 at the Aug. 10 meeting.

“Our Superintendent continues to engage in ongoing conversations with the Combs Education Association as well as our families to address concerns regarding the return to school,” the district said in a statement Aug. 17. “We’re sensitive to the feedback of our staff, as well as our community, and are working nonstop to find solutions to the polarizing and challenging issues currently facing school districts throughout the state and country.”

At the emergency meeting on Aug. 19th, the J.O. Combs Unified School Governing Board voted 4-1 to resume remote learning, and the board will meet again on Aug. 27 to review public health data and consider whether to resume in-person instruction.

“If recent days have taught us anything, it’s that re-opening has got to be a collaborative decision,” Kotterman said.

“At a minimum, forcing staff back into school before they feel safe will result in a severe strain on the relationship and damage the credibility of the board,” Kotterman said. “In the worst case, they will simply refuse to participate as we have seen this week. Neither of those scenarios are ultimately good for students.”