Chandler Unified School District has decided not to risk potentially exposing students to COVID-19 and is delaying the reopening of its campuses until October.
Thousands of the district’s students had been expecting to return to their schools by Aug. 17, but Chandler Unified will now forgo in-person teaching until the second quarter, which starts Oct. 13. The district will wait until late September, however, before signing off on that reopening date.
Superintendent Camille Casteel said the decision to delay reopening was a difficult one that she knows will surely distress many parents.
“It came down to the risks for our children,” she said.
The district’s Governing Board unanimously approved a resolution on Wednesday that only allows in-person instruction to resume if COVID-19 data meets specific benchmarks set by Arizona’s public health officials.
Even before the state Department of Health Services released its benchmarks, the Maricopa County Public Health Department released a set of metrics to help districts decide when they can safely allow in-person teaching again.
And in a press conference hours before the Chandler Unified Governing Board met, Marcy Flanagan, executive director of the county Department of Public Health, said it was unlikely campuses could reopen by next week.
Flanagan said county health officials have been meeting with a work group of top administrators from public and private schools to discuss data-driven benchmarks rather than a specific date for reopening campuses.
“Given the benchmarks discussed with our work group and benchmarks that we believe a DHS may consider,” Flanagan said, “We are not currently meeting those benchmarks to have our schools fully reopen and go back to in-person teacher-led classes.
“I wouldn’t provide a date certain” for reopening, she said, but rather would look at benchmarks – such as the level of reported new virus cases.
In order to safely open classrooms, the county health agency recommends waiting until there’s a decline in the percentage of positive tests in proportion to the total number of people tested.
Flanagan said last week’s statewide infection rate of 12.6 percent was still too high.
Chandler Unified said it will decide on Sept. 23 whether the state and county health metrics have been satisfied enough to allow for in-person teaching to start during the second quarter.
Though CUSD chose to delay reopening before even seeing the state’s metric guidelines, district leaders felt families were owed a decision sooner rather than later.
Board member David Evans said Chandler Unified couldn’t afford to wait any longer for the state to offer guidelines for reopening.
“We have to move forward now and allow people the time to prepare,” Evans added.
His colleagues echoed a similar sentiment, saying they wanted to offer parents and students some stability in a chaotic situation.
There are still too many unknowns about the pandemic, said board member Lindsay Love that could put Chandler Unified’s 47,000 students at risk – 10,000 of whom live in Gilbert.
“We do want children back but we want children to be back safe,” she said. “One loss is too many at this point.”
The board acknowledged the psychological impact on students by not learning in a familiar environment among their peers. But members said the physical safety of student and staff must be the district’s first priority when deciding how and when to reopen schools.
The district said it will be offering free on-site learning opportunities and support services to students who absolutely need a place to go during the school day.
No specific details on who qualifies for these services were immediately available.
The decision to delay reopening schools was made the same day CUSD students officially started the 2020-21 school year by logging online into their virtual classrooms.
But the reaction from parents to Chandler’s first day of digital school was mixed.
Some felt their child moved through their online classes smoothly, some reported a few technological hiccups and others were outright frustrated.
Jennifer Valencia, whose daughter is enrolled in the district’s Chandler Online Academy, said the first day was rough due to several technological glitches.
“Classes weren’t all uploaded in the system, some classes have no teacher assigned yet, and things would randomly disappear from the platform while she was trying to complete them,” she said.
CUSD said it is attempting to resolve these technological issues quickly and has set up a special call center where families can ask questions or report problems they’re having with the online platforms.
What makes the predicament even more confusing is that the online experience for each CUSD student is not the same.
The pupils who had elected to return to in-person learning on Aug. 17 will receive what the district calls “virtual learning,” which is separate from what students enrolled in the Online Academy is experiencing.
Virtual learning would be like taking the schedule and coursework of any Chandler High School student and putting it online, said Larry Rother, the district’s senior executive director of K-12 services.
These virtual students are assigned teachers they expect to have back at their homesite and teachers correspond directly through Google Classrooms to teach lessons and hand out assignments.
The Online Academy is different because it operates with a specific curriculum developed by Florida Virtual School and students interact with teachers assigned specifically to the Academy, Rother added.
Before CUSD decided to delay in-person learning, it had about 13,000 students electing to stay enrolled in online school for the first quarter and 2,500 were planning to continue learning online for the whole school year.
Online Academy secondary students work at their own pace to get through six assigned courses and can virtually chat with online instructors.
The Academy’s elementary students are given a more structured schedule with times set out for when they’re expected to start and finish a lesson. Students are guaranteed to have at least three live interactions with an Academy instructor each day.
If a student wants to switch to in-person learning for the second quarter, Rother said they would return to their respective campus and be assigned new teachers.
“Our hope is to make the transition as seamless as we can for students who leave Chandler Online Academy and come back to the homesite,” Rother said.
The district is trying to ensure that online learning the semester will be an improvement over the last quarter of 2019-20, Rother added.
Besides the need to pull an online program together quickly back then, he said the district had not even known how many students had access to a computer at home, forcing some families to rely on paper assignments they’d have to regularly pick up from their school site.
Chandler Unified has since spent millions purchasing hundreds of extra laptops for the school year and officials said they are trying to avoid the need for paper packets.
Last week, CUSD handed out more than 5,000 laptops to families who had requested one and more devices should become available in the near future.
Casteel encouraged parents not to withdraw their children out of enrollment and promised CUSD would resolve any issue arising from online learning.