teens in classroom

Perhaps the most significant announcement Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will ever make was expected this weekend as she rolls out guidelines for reopening schools this August.

But those guidelines, which Hoffman  promised May 30 – past the Gilbert Sun News deadline – are only the beginning for districts as they peer into a murky future that’s only about eight weeks away.

East Valley districts are following pretty much the same approach as Gilbert Public Schools and Higley Unified are taking – planning different scenarios with a wary eye on the possibility of a COVID-19 resurgence later this year.

Gilbert officials’ plans mirror the thinking of their neighboring districts in planning for a school year fraught with uncertainty created by the virus.

For example,  Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil told his Governing Board, “We also need to be prepared in the event it is necessary for the district office to close schools again in the fall sometime should there be a concern of a second COVID-19 outbreak.”

 President Trump has said schools should reopen. Gov. Doug Ducey last week said school will reopen, adding, “Parents and teachers and superintendents must be prepared.”

That is easier said than done as administrators see a myriad of complex – and expensive – issues that will impact students, teachers, themselves and parents.

The issues are staggering in their complexity and breadth.

They affect how students will get to and from school, how they will sit and move around inside them, how they will eat and play. Field trips and extracurriculars activities – from sports to choral to band – also await scrutiny.

Officials also must assess what Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis called in a recent public discussion “learning loss” among students over the last three months of distance learning as well as the continuing “digital divide” between students with internet access and those without.

Even the impact of closures on students’ mental health is an issue, given the prolonged alarm over the virus and their long separation from classmates and campus life.

School officials also will confront financial issues since they receive millions of dollars from sales tax revenue, which has plummeted as a result of business closures. 

The guidelines coming from Hoffman will be just that – guidelines.

Fourlis told the MPS Governing Board last week that during a meeting with Hoffman and Ducey, the governor was “very very clear to say Arizona has guidelines...These are not mandates.”

“I was sitting next to the superintendent from the Navajo nation. He has a very different problem to solve than we do, so that statewide plan has to be nimble,” said Fourlis, one of 89 school officials statewide who helped Hoffman craft the guidelines

Although the Trump Administration had shelved a 62-page set of guidelines created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening the country, the document was leaked.

It contained 19 specific recommendations – not rules - for reopening schools that AASA, The Superintendents Association, urged school districts should follow.

Those recommendations include spacing desk 6 feet apart, canceling field trips and limited extracurricular activities, repeated emphasis on washing hands and related hygiene practices, canceling most work gatherings, staggering the use of cafeterias and other gathering places like playgrounds so they can be disinfected after every use, staggering arrival and dropoff times and even locations, assigning supplies like crayons and pens to individual students and restricting visits from parents or other nonessential people.

School officials are exmaining every inch of space on all their campuses, trying to assess if libraries and multipurpose rooms might have to be converted into classrooms so desks can be kept social distant from each other.

Districts also will be examining the most efficient and effective way to achieve a high and frequent level of disinfecting – posing another new expense.

But even as that all goes on, school officials have an even bigger worry: who will even come to school if campuses reopen?

The question involves both teachers and students.

Some districts are surveying teaching staff to see who plans to return to the classroom when school begins.

While available data suggests the spread of the virus among children may be low, the data is mixed on the frequency of child-to-adult transfers.

Even without children, however, interactions among school staff could pose a concern for at least some school employees, particularly those who are older.

GPS is surveying its teachers. Higley officials could not be reached. Chandler Unified spokesman Terry Locke said that judging by the number of teachers who have signed contracts for 2020-21, staffing won’t be a problem.

Then there are worries about how many parents might not want to send their children to school – a prospect with major financial implications because the bulk of school districts’ state funding is based on enrollment.

Those concerns run the gamut: Some may have elderly family members in the household and might fear their child will inadvertently infect them. Some parents of special-needs children might fear for their kids’ safety.

Then there are parents who may fear that a second wave of the virus will force another round of closures and decide to simply hold off sending their kids back until they see what happens.

GPS also is surveying parents, as is Chandler Unified.

The Arizona Board of Education acknowledge those concerns by establishing a new way for districts to expand their online learning programs to all grades so that students whose parents opt for distance learning will count in the state’s reimbursement formula.

The state board contracted with Rio Solado Community College to evaluate written descriptions of online educational programs.

Board Education Executive Director Alicia Williams said districts that have approved online programs for some grades will have to seek certification to extend that distant learning to other grades.

Districts also are assessing how they will handle transportation. While some states have talked about staggering start times so fewer children are on a bus, there is no agreement nationally on whether this will be necessary.

However, there is agreement among bus transportation professionals additional sanitizing measures will be needed.

During a webinar last month on the subject, Mike Martin, executive director/CEO of the National Association of Pupil Transportation said that because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, there is no set best practice available. 

His organization also asked its members to “work with their school leadership to issue a statement to parents about cleanliness on their school buses.”

In that same webinar, Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services, said the industry has developed a two-step cleaning process followed by a disinfecting process.

But he stressed the need for districts to reassure parents that buses are safe.

Hood also said that buses are not designed for social distancing. Hence, he said, school districts will have to determine how to protect both students and drivers and that in the short-run, drivers may have to be equipped with protective clothing to enhance their safety.

To help districts meet some of those costs associated with the pandemic, Congress allotted $30.6 billion of its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for school districts.

Arizona’s share is $275 million and most districts have already been advised as to what they can expect and it is unclear how much Higley and GPS are expecting. Chandler Unified expects close to $4 million.

But there’s a national controversy over that money after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos advised that private schools – those that charge tuition – share in that money.

Moreover, her department advised, private schools’ share should be based on the total number of all its students while public schools’ share must be based on the number of students who come from families at or below the poverty line.

Private schools within each district must request that money from the district.

Furthermore, “schools must notify the private schools, but many privates have already reached out because it’s a much larger sum than in the past,” said Dr. Mark Joraanstad, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators.

Chandler Unified expects to be diverting 10 percent of whatever it gets to private schools, Locke said.

Joraanstad has urged all Arizona superintendents to write to their congressional representatives and ask that Congress step in to blunt Devos. 

“It appears the House is considering putting further guidance language on their intent,” he told GSN.  “Whether the Senate would do so is more questionable.  However, some senators have expressed concern over abandoning the poverty standard that has a history going back to the mid 1960’s.”

The backlash against Devos’ plan, however, is growing among both Democrats and Republicans.

Indiana’s Republican state superintendent of education already has declared she state will ignore Devos’ directive.

Republican Sen. Alexander Lamar, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, has publicly expressed concern about her interpretation of the CARES Act.

“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Alexander told reporters last week. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

According to the website politico,com, “DeVos defended her interpretation of the law” and that she said, “it’s our interpretation that it is meant literally for all students and that includes students, no matter where they’re learning.”

Last week, The Hill reported that DeVos hardened her resolve and accused state education leaders of having a “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control.” 

And on friday, she said she is issuing a rule to make her guidance mandatory and “resolve any issues in plenty of time for the next school year.”