Dr. Shane McCord Reed Carr

A Gilbert Public Schools task force is developing a plan for what the academic year will look like in August with COVID-19 still in the picture.

Higley Unified also is doing the same thing.

The GPS plan includes three scenarios ranging from everyone back in the classroom to full online teaching, which was implemented for the fourth quarter of the school year that ended this month. 

“I’m grateful that we are looking at all possibilities and the ability to switch back and forth between those possibilities,” said Governing Board member Reed Carr at last week’s meeting. 

“I certainly don’t want to state the following in terms of saying that I have closed my mind to all possibilities but I certainly hope that we could be back in the classroom,” he continued. “I know in the large, large majority of conversations that I’ve had with teachers – and surprisingly students, too – they are all looking forward to being back in person and have expressed that desire.”

Carr added it must be done so safely and within guidelines and taking data as it comes in to make wise decisions.

“My preference is that we try to include as many students to attend in-person as possible, taking into consideration that some may be uncomfortable or have underlying concerns” Carr said. “We need to meet their needs, too.”

Scenario A is a “normal” return to school, Scenario B is a hybrid where some students may be in the classroom while others could do remote learning and Scenario C called for full online instruction, according to Barbara Newman, executive director of curriculum.

“We miss our students. We want to be back with them,” Newman said. “And, so while the normal has not been clearly defined for us we want to be sure we are committed to being back with our kids.”

That said, Newman added, “we might have students that online instruction is an option for them and the best option for them or their families and so we want to be ready with all three scenarios and all three ways to help service our kids.

“Schools are responsible for meeting the needs of all students, including the distinctive needs of students from low-income backgrounds, students with disabilities and English-language learners.”

Newman said reopening the schools will need modifications based on guidance from national and state health officials.

State Superintendent of Public Education Kathy Hoffman told some superintendents at a meeting earlier this week that she would release the guidelines May 30, past Gilbert Sun News’s deadline.

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis told her Governing Board that Hoffman and Gov. Doug Ducey told her and other superintendents that they would be “guidelines not suggestions” – and, apparently, not requirements.

“Those are not mandates,” Fourlis told her board. “I was sitting next to the superintendent from the Navajo Nation. He has a very different problem to solve than we do. So, we have to the statewide plan has to be nimble. Every school district can jump in to that planning and so there will be guidelines. 

“I’m just incredibly impressed with the resources that they are using and the highly regarded agencies that are coming together and sharing what best practices can look like in this particular environment,” Fourlis said.

The GPS task force includes a number of subcommittees – such as academics, employees, remote learning/technology and programs – in order to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the needs of students and staff, Newman said. 

The subcommittees, which include representation from all stakeholder groups – including district leadership, social workers, teachers, parents and community members – began working last week. 

The district also will be doing a survey with parents for their feedback, Newman said.

 “We want to offer some sort of fluidity so we are able to move if we have to from one scenario to the next,” Newman said. “So, if something occurs outside of our control we want to make sure we are ready for our kids.”

There will be an implementation plan for all three scenarios. The task force will officially present the plan to the Governing Board at its last meeting in June, she added. 

“There also will be an implementation plan for the short-term, getting our kids back to learning in August of 2020 and also a long-term plan because what this has showed us these last couple of months is we need to be sure we have some school preparedness plan in place,” Newman said. 

“It’s really important that we can continue to serve the needs of our kids regardless of what else is going on in the world and we are committed to do that through this.”

Board member Jill Humpherys pointed out it usually takes a year for the board to do a study such as this and then another year to implement it well.

“We have to do it in four weeks,” she said. “We are condensing two years of board work down to four weeks so please, people need to be patient with us and be flexible with us and help us to do the best we can under the circumstances.”

Higley Unified is taking somewhat of the same approach, according to a statement that Superintendent Mike Thomason posted on the district website.

“While it is our hope that we return to our regularly scheduled educational programs next year, please know that we have already begun preparing for a variety of school settings for the 2020-2021 school year,” he said.

He said various task force committees are being formed “that will involve stakeholders from all levels and identify options for returning to school in line with directives from federal and state officials.”

“The district will be surveying employees and parents for input,” Thomason wrote, adding the district is “developing various options that could incorporate online learning as needed.”

He also said that Higley Unified is planning a “slow and controlled opening” and for now is postponing out-of-state and overnight travel and large group events.”

“Our goal is to move forward responsibly, carefully and cautiously,” he said.