Higley Unified

It was a different kind of first day of school for Higley Unified last week as all students took to laptops instead of a bus. The district still hopes to open classrooms on Aug. 17, if it meets guiddelines the state is expected to release this week.

Gilbert Public Schools expects to meet Sept. 22 to re-evaluate opening campuses if the district hasn’t met safety guidelines to do so before then as the district prepares to start the 2020-21 school year Wednesday with remote learning for all students.

But Higley Unified is looking at a campus return for students and teachers on Aug. 17, provided it meets opening data-driven criteria that the state Health Services Department is expected to release this week. The district began the new year last Monday online.

Gov. Doug Ducey two weeks ago gave school districts the authority to decide when to open classrooms after Aug. 17.

But under his latest order, districts that aren’t fully open for in-classroom learning by Aug. 17 must offer campus space with free on-site support of remote learning for students who need a place to go during the school day. That includes special education students and English learners.

Neither GPS nor Higley Unified had details for meeting that directive last week as GPS said it is waiting for more guidance for state education officials. 

Both districts’ governing boards held lengthy meetings last week to discuss the new school year.


GPS wrestles with issues

At its meeting last Tuesday, GPS board members wrestled over whether to set a date for in-person learning after hearing from 22 people. Board members also have been inundated with emails from parents and teachers on both sides of the issue.

A dozen speakers, including Angela Philpot, asked the board not to set an arbitrary date for reopening campuses but to follow medical guidelines instead.

Philpot is a mother of three children attending GPS schools and a district teacher for English learners.

“Make the ethical choice to delay in-person school until the end of the first quarter or when health metrics are met as deemed by professionals in the field,” Philpot said.

Looked around the meeting room and noting attendees were spaced apart and wearing masks, she said the board was following the health guidelines that teachers out in the field can’t.

“I don’t know how we can ask teachers to go in person,” said Philpot, adding that she has over 20 students at a time in her classes.

She said although children may be low-transmitters of COVID-19, they are taught by adults who may have the disease and can bring it back to their homes.

“As a 22-year veteran school teacher, I want to be in a classroom with my students more than anyone, especially my ELL students,” she said. “They deserve in-person learning. However, I cannot risk my students’ lives and their families’ lives.  

“A lot of my students live with their grandparents who are elderly and even though my students may not get as sick, it could be detrimental to their grandparents and I do not want to attend the funeral of a student or of their family this school year nor do I want to contract something and bring it back to my own loved ones,” Philpot said.

Amy Rowe, a special education teacher for nearly 20 years in the district, asked that schools stay closed beyond Aug. 17 so there is time to plan and prepare.

When campuses do reopen, she recommended, class sizes should be based on the size of a room. She also said elementary schools should reopen first, followed by secondary and then high schools.

Kyle Nobile, the father of a Finley Farms Elementary student, said this was not time to reopen schools, given inadequate data with a backlog in Covid-19 testing and the two-week turn-around for test results.

“We know Arizona is getting slammed with one Arizonan dead every 14 minutes,” he said. “There’s a very vocal group trying to pressure you to open.”

And, kindergarten teacher Martha Romero said it would be impossible to enforce social distancing in a class of 20-40 students and difficult to keep them safe.

She said kindergarteners are not good about washing their hands, staying put in their area or wearing a mask. She said she was leery of the district opening up schools only to shut down again if cases skyrocket in the state.

Eight people spoke for reopening of schools.

“I’m concerned a vocal minority is driving the bus when most of us want kids back in school,” said Colby Ashton, who has two kids in GPS school. “I want my kids in the chairs on Aug. 17. I’ll sign a waiver. Let’s learn in the classroom and let those who don’t want to have that option as well.”

He said the district will lose students if it delays in-person instruction.

Dr. Kelly Slater said she and her husband “are both full-time doctors and full-time parents in the morning and the second that we get home until the kids either pass out or we lay on the couch until we’re going to pass out.

“So, to say that we want to send our kids back to school full time is an understatement,” said Slater, who with her husband Nick have a dental practice in Mesa.

Slater said she found it hard to understand opposition to reopening schools when the district is giving three options for learning – full-time online, in-person and flex, a combination of the two.

“That should be enough for parents and teachers,” she said. “My in-laws are teachers. I have nothing against people wanting to stay home to be safe. But they have that option.”

She said as a doctor she is well-aware of the CDC guidelines and its importance in her practice in order to keep the doors open.

“This data everybody is talking about, I don’t know if we are just all watching Fox news or everyone is watching CNN but the cases are supposed to go up,” Slater said. “Everyone is supposed to have contracted this at some point. We are all supposed to have some sort of antibodies to this eventually.”

She said COVID-19 is a disease of the elderly and those with comorbidities but for “children not so much.” 

She said she gets that adults are teaching the children but she didn’t see it as a reason to shut down a school district and that if that was the line of thinking, then school should be canceled for the fall because of the flu.

“The percentage of deaths is going down,” Slater said. “The cases that we are focusing on are going up. The facts are there, how we perceive them are so different.”

She added she’s not a teacher and would not be good at it, and was not asking but hoped the board would reopen schools on Aug. 17.

Superintendent Shane McCord said the board could keep with the Aug. 17 date or push it back.

Board members went back and forth over a motion with Reed Carr and Lori Wood favoring language that the district would open schools when the state benchmarks are met without setting a date for return.

However, President Charles Santa Cruz and board members Sheila Rogers Uggetti and Jill Humpherys wanted some sort of a date so teachers and families could plan accordingly.

They finally agreed to see what guidelines the state releases this week before deciding what will happen Aug. 17.


Higley updates first week

Higley Unified officials told the board last Wednesday that another survey was sent to parents and teachers asking for their preference for online or in-person learning. The board did not allow anyone from the public to attend the meeting, which was streamed live.

Associate Superintendent Dawn Foley, charged with overseeing the reopening of schools, said the surveys are due back Monday, Aug. 4, and will help the district with staffing.

The board scheduled a 9 a.m., Aug. 8 meeting to discuss the survey results and the state benchmark for reopening classrooms.

Foley also updated the board on the first days of online learning and said they went smoothly. 

She and staff also detailed on how attendance is being kept, the safety protocols in place and how food services are being maintained.

Michael Fowler, assistant superintendent of support services, reported that an outside evaluation of the district’s buildings found Higley is “ahead of the curve” for safety for when students and staff return to campuses.

Both school districts also are working on developing a face covering policy, although Ducey already has ordered that students and staff that do return to campuses must wear masks.