The Chandler Unified School District plans to give students the option of returning to classrooms or completing their coursework online for the upcoming school year.
The district’s Governing Board spent nearly six hours Wednesday probing administrators on the logistics of reopening all 42 Chandler Unified’s campuses by Aug. 5 before narrowly voting 3-2 to authorize a plan that essentially gives students the option to determine whether they feel safe enough to return to school amid the pandemic.
Students have been asked to inform the district by July 10 whether they wish to attend school online or in-person for the 2020-2021 school year.
Board members Lara Bruner and Lindsay Love rejected the district’s two-option plan over safety concerns about allowing too many students to return to campus.
“I can’t support this plan,” Bruner said, “I wish that I could support it. I want kids back on campus.”
If not enough students voluntarily enroll in online schooling, Bruner said it would be impossible to achieve any type of social distancing within the schools and the district could find itself in violation of state and county health guidelines.
“Our high schools are going to be shut down,” Bruner predicted.
Bruner, a teacher for the last 28 years, proposed an alternative contingency plan that would account for the prospect of not enough kids choosing to take online classes.
She said the district could split the in-person students into two groups: one would come to school on Monday and Wednesday to take three classes, then the other group would attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Both groups would take their remaining classes online.
But because the district’s plan didn’t allow for this type of hybrid learning, Bruner said she didn’t feel comfortable voting for it.
District officials acknowledged the complexity of planning for the upcoming school year while the COVID-19 crisis continues to plague Arizona.
Superintendent Camille Casteel said the district is stuck in a “no-win” situation because parents have such a diverse range of opinion as to how CUSD should react to the pandemic.
“There is not a right answer or a single solution,” she said. “We don’t have consensus from our community on the direction they think we should go.”
For every parent wishing the district delay its reopening date, Casteel added, there’s an equal number asking for the district’s calendar to go unchanged.
Though some parents have requested CUSD not reopen at all for the upcoming year due to Arizona’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases, administrators say they must follow the lead set by the state’s leaders and prepare for the roadmap they’ve laid out.
The state is concerned about the social-emotional health of students and wants them to be engaged again with their school communities, Casteel said, so CUSD must prepare to offer some sort of in-person learning model.
The board voted unanimously to push back the district’s first day of school from July 22 to Aug. 5. The new calendar shortens the fall and spring breaks by one week so that the district can still provide at least 180 days of instruction -- a legal requirement mandated under Arizona law.
Casteel said those additional two weeks are needed to ensure all teachers will be properly trained on the district’s new protocols and models of instruction.
Furthermore, the extra time will allow families some “breathing room” to make an informed decision regarding whether to send their child back to school, the superintendent added.
Casteel’s decision was made despite a significant number of CUSD employees expressing opposition to delaying the district’s first day of school.
According to a recent survey of more than 3,700 district employees, 59 percent of teachers didn’t think the school year should have been delayed.
The students choosing to return to their respective campuses in August will undoubtedly notice several changes made to their school’s physical environment.
Water fountains will be closed, floors will be marked, desks rearranged, and younger students will walk about campus tethered together with a rope.
According to the district’s reopening plan, CUSD will heavily monitor playground activity and make sure students are not clumping together in large groups. Lunch times will be staggered out so that a limited number of students will be inside the cafeteria.
Masks, gloves, face shields will be available at each campus and every school office will have plexiglass shields installed at their front desks.
Touchpoint areas inside school restrooms and health offices will be disinfected by staff at least twice each day. Hand sanitizer will be available to use in all classrooms and cafeterias.
Teachers will ask students to bring their own water bottles to school each day and advise them not to share it with their classmates.
Classroom items that are commonly shared among students, like computer keyboards, will be regularly wiped down and sanitized.
Parents dropping off children at school will be told to remain inside their vehicles and non-essential visitors will have limited access to campuses.
Extracurricular activities at the elementary and secondary schools are expected to still be available with some new precautions that encourage social distancing.
“We have no intention to reduce our electives,” said Assistant Superintendent Craig Gilbert. “We may just have to make some adjustments.”
The students choosing to enroll in the online program can still come to their home campus and participate in sports or extracurricular activities, Gilbert added.
The district’s online curriculum is expected to be radically different from what students were subjected to during the fourth quarter of the last academic year, which was when the pandemic first hit and triggered a statewide shutdown of Chandler’s schools.
Chandler Unified was in “crisis mode” at the end of last year, Casteel said, and had little time to provide a comprehensive online program for students.
The district’s new online academy for elementary students is intended to be more enhanced and engaging than what had been offered previously.
Online students can expect to have at least three live interactions with a teacher each day and have regular access to a school counselor.
Virtual students will follow a schedule that blocks out how much time they should spend studying math, English, science, and history.
Fifteen-minute “movement breaks” will be factored into the online schedule so students can get away from their computer periodically throughout the day.
The goal is to have the online academy feel the same as the brick-and-mortar classroom experience, said Jessica Edgar, the district’s director of elementary curriculum.
Chandler Unified wants the online option to be able to fit the needs of every student, Edgar added, so teachers and administrators will be tracking and assessing the progress of each pupil as they move through the semester.
The district’s secondary students have been able to enroll in online school for several years through the Chandler Online Academy, a state-accredited program that allows students to complete courses at their own pace throughout the semester.
Gilbert said the online academy will attempt to have more of a relationship-building component this year between students and teachers so that students still feel connected to the district.
Because more high school students are expected to enroll in the online academy this year, the district is planning to add more Advanced Placement courses to the academy’s catalog.
Students electing to enroll in the online program must commit to it for at least the first quarter of the new school year.
The district will consider special circumstances that may force a student to quickly switch between in-person and online learning, Gilbert said, and these situations will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
The school board’s decision to reopen schools came only a few hours after Gov. Doug Ducey announced new monetary resources the state would be supplying to Arizona’s schools to ward off the pandemic’s economic impacts.
Ducey signed an executive order that provides up to $270 million in one-time funding to help districts reopen by paying for more digital resources and supplementing lost revenue.
CUSD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said the governor’s plan shouldn’t be viewed as schools getting an extra pot of money. These funds are intended to stabilize a district’s budget in case their enrollment was to suddenly drop due to the pandemic, she said.
Ducey’s spending plan wouldn’t allow for a district to quickly hire additional teachers, Berry added, which would help a district reduce class sizes.
Some board members repeatedly expressed concern over the number of kids expected to be in a classroom at one time and wished to try and reduce that number.
Board President Barbara Mozdzen conceded there are several fears and concerns about what the future will look like for Chandler Unified in the coming weeks.
The district won’t be able to qualm all of these fears and satisfy the demands of every family, she said, but the options mapped out for the upcoming school year appear to be as flexible and accommodating as the district can offer at this point in time.
“We cannot make every single person happy with what we do,” Mozdzen added.