On June 1, the Arizona Department of Education (ADE) released a 40-page “roadmap” offering guidance to public school districts as they plan and prepare to reopen their classroom doors this fall. With such recommendations as keeping social distancing intact through modified layouts, Yuma County School Superintendent Tom Tyree said it’s safe to bet that local stakeholders will likely see their schools taking a similar approach, noting that one size does not fit all.
“In Yuma County we have nine school districts, and we have STEDY (Southwest Technical Education District of Yuma) which really makes it 10,” Tyree said. “The location of each of those school districts, the size of those school districts, the number of students that they have because of that size — that’s going to dictate or create some difference in the way they may approach how they try to best implement the practices that we need to put in place to make sure our kids are safe. But I think we’re going to see some commonality in approach as well.”
Yuma County district superintendents continue to meet on a monthly basis to meld their thoughts and ideas, and districts continue to gather among themselves to evaluate the best possible methods for safe reintegration.
“Your greatest chance of being able to provide that safe environment is through the collective wisdom that you gain from having a number of people who’ve been giving a lot of thought to this coming together,” said Tyree. “So that’s what we’re going to do; we’re going to come together and talk about different thoughts and ideas, identify what the challenges are going to be and see if there are solutions. And especially, we have to look at it in the context of what it is that we have some control over and, with the resources that we have available, what we can do.”
While plans remain fluid, districts are gathering “as much information as possible,” developing contingency plans for multiple scenarios and exploring options within in-person, remote and blended learning models.
Crane School District recently conducted staff and parent surveys, gathering feedback to help steer the direction of the district’s reopening plans. The Crane governing board will also convene for a work session on June 16 to further discuss and develop those options.
According to Yuma School District One’s communications and community engagement coordinator Christine McCoy, there is still much to consider; and while there are no final plans at this time, administrators have been planning, meeting and discussing since Day One of the closures.
“It’s not as if we’re just beginning the conversation, but we’re really starting to get into the meat of it with details that have been provided,” she said. “We’re focusing on, ‘What if we’re at remote learning only, what if we’re at a mix of remote and in-classroom learning and what if we’re at in-classroom only, and what are all of the possibilities that fall within each model?’ It sounds like a lot of work, and it is. We’re keeping ourselves open to a lot of changes, keeping things flexible but making sure we have plans in place for a lot of the scenarios that we can anticipate might happen — that way if something happens or changes after a few months of being back to school, we’re ready, prepared and can immediately switch gears if we need to so that there’s as little interruption as possible.”
District One will also be gathering parent feedback in the coming days and weeks to help guide district decisions.
In Yuma Union High School District, teams of administrators and staff on both the district and campus levels are meeting two to three times per week, according to Chief Communications Officer Eric Patten.
Similarly, lead maintenance, office and cafeteria managers, teachers and other staff in Mohawk Valley School District are collaborating to identify some of the “big rocks” like food service, maintenance and office procedures, busing and finding creative alternatives for the school’s “culture of connection and celebration” if large group assemblies are not an option.
“Transportation is going to be a challenge,” Mohawk Superintendent Shanna Johnson said. “Our buses are normally full, plus our bus drivers also do several other tasks at the school.”
According to Tyree, schools could see modifications in lunchtime protocol as well.
“I think you’re probably going to see some changes in the way we feed students,” he said. “You’re probably not going to have one or two or however many periods during the day where there’s a large number of students going into the cafeteria the way that they typically do. You may see a difference in the way students come in and exit the cafeteria, or you may see that students are fed in other areas. I think some people are talking about feeding students in classrooms to cut down on having large numbers of students together at one time. How you do that, once again, is going to vary an awful lot on the size of the school that you have.”
Once the districts have more solidified information to communicate on their reopening plans, families will be notified via districts’ respective social media platforms, email and other communication systems.
“School districts, leadership teams, their administrative staff, their teachers — they’re all working toward trying to come up with multiple scenarios for how it is that we might provide the best education that aligns with the best environment for our students and their health and their safety,” said Tyree. “That’s the main thing, to make sure that it all aligns and is congruent.”
ISSUES IN NEED OF LEGISLATIVE ACTION
According to Tyree, districts are also staying in touch with state legislators to get a sense of what they anticipate to unfold in the weeks leading up to reopening as well as additional resources that they may be able to provide to ensure safety and success.
“One of the things that we as superintendents and school people want to do is to do a good job of communicating to our legislators and policymakers in Arizona what needs to happen and the help that we need from them to make those things happen,” said Tyree. “I think there’s a chance that the Legislature may be called back into special session, and then I think what we’d hope is that the Legislature will pass some legislation that will provide some resources to school districts in Arizona so that we have the resources to work with to put several things in place.”
Should a special session occur, Crane School District is hopeful that the Legislature will address major pressures such as clear protocols on the health and wellbeing of students and staff, additional flexible instructional models, technological connectivity and accessibility for all students and budget predictability and stability.
“We, along with many of our peers, feel that these four priorities are the most essential in addressing the current landscape of Arizona’s public education,” said Rosie Peña, community relations coordinator for Crane.
Tyree emphasized that seeking legislative action “isn’t just about money.” Depending on which model schools adopt for the fall, there may be a need for legislators to carefully consider and create changes in some of the state’s laws for education. For example, were districts to opt with a hybrid learning model, theoretically, to decrease the number of students on campus by having some attend in-person for a certain number of days and virtually for another number of days each week, a new law would need to go into effect to track attendance this way.
“On its surface, that (model) might be something that’s practical and might help in terms of safety,” Tyree said. “But what it means is the way we count attendance, and in turn the way our schools are funded, would be changes that the Legislature would have to put into effect in order for us to count our kids. Because the way things are right now, you are funded and you count attendance based on those students being in school.”
Somerton School District Superintendent Laura Noel echoed those sentiments. While remote and hybrid learning are among the instructional models recommended in the ADE’s roadmap, districts will have difficulty choosing these methods if they aren’t backed by legislative support, she said.
“Our funding formula for counting students to be able to pay teachers and staff is based on a certain number of instructional minutes a day, a certain number of days of instruction and the number of students we have receiving that instruction,” she noted. “Some of these guidelines are out of our reach, and even if we could figure out a way to do them, this whole issue of how the state is going to fund the students and the classrooms and everyone that’s working is still in question. So it’s really quite a stressful dilemma.”
Another issue, Noel pointed out, is determining how to deal with COVID-19 in schools should cases arise there and how that might affect attendance.
“Let’s say that a teacher in the classroom gets sick, then you’re going to have all of those kids stay home because they’ve been exposed potentially and that staff member’s going to stay home for 14 days,” she said. “So then what happens, do they all come back at the end of 14 days? And what happens during the 14 days — how do we grade it, how do we record it? The way the state law reads right now, if a child is absent 10 days, they’re dropped. The mechanisms are not all in place to support what (the ADE) would like to see happen. We’re going to need the support of the state.”
As superintendents await legislative action on these matters, their focus remains on ensuring the safety of students and staff and maintaining clear and open communication with families.
“We want our parents to feel comfortable and feel that their students are going to be well taken care of,” Tyree said.
The ADE’s “Roadmap for Reopening Schools” is available online at www.azed.gov/communications/2020/03/10/guidance-to-schools-on-covid-19/.