Chandler Unified School District officials say they’re “disgusted” by community members who have been willfully violating COVID-19 protocols by attending large gatherings and not wearing masks – enough so that they decided to temporarily shut down campuses for two weeks.
Days after a video showing students throwing a massive New Year’s Eve party at a Gilbert residence in Whitewing began circulating online, the CUSD Governing Board held a last-minute meeting Jan. 4 to cancel all in-classroom instruction until Jan. 19.
The district’s 45,000 students – including 10,000 in Gilbert – must now learn virtually from home, just as they did at the start of last semester.
The sudden decision angered some parents and relieved many others. But it was perceived as a quick remedy to prevent COVID-19 cases from increasing exponentially during a time when some local residents have not been following health guidelines.
“The lack of regard for other individuals is very, very concerning,” said board President Barbara Mozdzen. “I am very discouraged with our whole community. It makes our jobs so much more difficult.”
Mozdzen was referencing the videos and photos showing hordes of high school students partying indoors over the holiday break that had surfaced online days before the spring semester was scheduled to begin.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office observed hundreds of people at the Gilbert party and is reviewing whether to cite the homeowner who welcomed the large gathering.
Mozdzen said the behavior exhibited in the partying videos, which depicted some attendees not wearing face masks, could be causing virus cases to rise and is now forcing the district to be extra cautious.
“I am extremely disappointed that we have large parties in the community and that our community is not mitigating the spread so we can keep our kids in school,” she said.
Though Mozdzen has routinely favored keeping schools open, she voted to revert the district back to virtual learning until Martin Luther King Day. Board members Lindsay Love and Jason Olive voted with her.
Love, who’s regularly pushed for more virtual learning options during the pandemic, said she worries the two-week period may not be long enough to prevent a spike in new cases.
That New Year’s Eve party was a “slap in the face” to all of the district’s teachers, Love said, and it was “disgusting” behavior that could have major impacts on the district’s operations.
“I don’t really think our community is taking this seriously,” she added.
Board member Lara Bruner notably voted against the district’s virtual plan and instead proposed letting CUSD follow the guidance of the county Public Health Department.
All three benchmarks used by the county as guidance for schools show substantial virus spread in Chandler Unified as well as Gilbert.
Bruner suggested CUSD should let the county’s data dictate when campuses can reopen – an idea that didn’t sit well with her board colleagues.
Mozdzen said it would be a “crime” to allow virtual learning to continue endlessly until the county’s metrics changed.
“These kids are our future and we know our kids are not learning as much as they can during virtual,” Mozdzen said. “Virtual is not a substitute for being in-person.”
Bruner, a teacher for the Tempe Union High School District, disputed the notion that virtual learning is subpar and inherently inferior to classroom instruction.
“To minimize it is unfair to all the professionals out there who work their asses off for 10, 12, 14 hours a day to make virtual learning as best as they can,” she said.
Bruner further objected to the stress Chandler’s in-classroom module is inadvertently putting on teachers due to the quarantined students they have to track online.
The district requires students and staff to quarantine at home for two weeks after coming into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Teachers are expected to check-in with quarantined students and keep them included in classroom activities through video applications.
But Bruner said the number of CUSD students who have already quarantined – which has exceeded 1,800 – has made this teaching model inefficient for both parties involved.
“We have hundreds of quarantined students at the high schools and it’s unfair to the students to not have access to education during those 14 days,” Bruner said, “but at the same time, it’s unfair to the teachers to try to do a hybrid model when they don’t have the technology to do it.”
Before the Jan. 4 meeting, Bruner attempted to have the board convene on Dec. 23 to discuss changing the district’s instructional modalities.
By mid-December, the county’s data metrics showed Chandler had a “substantial” risk for spreading COVID-19 and Bruner tried to get CUSD to act before students returned to school for the spring semester.
But she claims her request was denied in order to allow a district committee more time to gather feedback on how to respond to the pandemic.
After the denial, many teachers and parents upped the pressure on CUSD to act by threatening to call out sick when classes resumed and organizing protests outside the district offices.
The district eventually reversed its plan and rushed to hold a board meeting right before students were expected to return to school.
Thousands of parents and teachers tuned into the Jan. 4 meeting to anxiously await the board’s decision for virtual learning and many did not appreciate the district’s slow response.
Frank Pezzorello, a Hamilton High teacher, chastised the district for waiting until the last minute to decide whether to return to virtual learning.
“The easy thing was to do nothing,” Pezzorello told the school board. “By delaying this meeting, we have not allowed parents to find childcare and we will have to deal with this one way or another.”
Some parents urged CUSD to continue in-person instruction at any means necessary.
Armando Spataro, a local parent, said shifting back to virtual learning would be harmful to his children and questioned the board’s decision considering the low infection rates seen across Arizona’s schools.
“I feel the districts will look back and see a trail of collateral damage created by denying our children their place in school,” Spataro said.
As of Jan. 6, CUSD reported only six active virus cases among its 50,000 staff and students. The district has had another 836 cases get resolved after the infected individual was deemed safe to return to campus.
CUSD has had an additional 600 cases of students contracting the virus while off campus – data that wasn’t previously being reported publicly until this month.
The school board has recently voted to revise its thresholds that would initiate a temporary school closure.
Before the Jan. 4 meeting, CUSD had been following a protocol that obligates administrators to close elementary schools when the infection rate for active cases reaches 2 percent of the campus population. High schools would close with an infection rate of 1 percent.
The board lowered the thresholds to 1.5 percent for elementary campuses, 1 percent for junior high schools, and .75 percent for high schools.
Despite the recent changes, some district officials feel CUSD still is not doing enough to make sure campuses are as safe as they can be.
Joel Wirth, one of the school board’s newest members, suggested reprimanding students and staff caught not wearing masks while on campus with some sort of sanction or penalty.
“We have got to put some teeth into people wearing masks,” Wirth said. “We’ve gotten loose….We need to follow the rules.”