Sarah Lazar, left, and Fatin Khorshidz

Sarah Lazar, left, and Fatin Khorshidz were two of many GPS nutrition services employees who distributed free breakfast and lunch packs to kids.

School closures and the possibility of their continuation threw schools districts in Gilbert and across Arizona into uncertainty as they faced a range of daunting issues.

From online instruction to graduation, continuing pay for non-teaching staff to meeting mandatory requirements of services to special-needs students, officials in both Gilbert Public Schools and Higley Unified looked to the state and federal government for guidance. 

Gilbert’s largest school district is ready to roll out remote learning should campuses remain close for the rest of the academic year as it appeared likely.

Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered all schools in Arizona to close through March 27 due to COVID-19. 

Ducey Friday afternoon closed schools an additional two weeks, stating, "School administrators should make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home."

It was unclear what Gilbert Public Schools and Higley Unified would be rolling out for online instruction.

“Should the closure extend beyond Friday, March 27, the district will be ready to implement remote learning,” according to a Gilbert Public Schools statement. “If this is the case, parents and guardians will receive communication from both the district and their student’s teachers with further details”

Higley Unified spokeswoman Michelle Reese said that during an extended closure, “optional lessons and learning activities will be made available.”

She pointed to the district’s website for further details on its plans during the closure and did not respond to what would be done to accommodate households without computer access.  

District spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis did not provide details on what remote learning might look like.

Many districts are struggling to develop a plan – and one of the big challenges involves training all teachers to teach in a virtual classroom.

Barbara Newman, GPS executive director of teaching and learning, said the state Education Department is recommending online learning.

Lesson plans would be in hard copy for households where there is no access to a computer or internet, Newman said. The district has 10 Title 1 schools, which means a large percentage of the student population is low-income. 

A Pew Research study in 2019 found that 94 percent of U.S. adults with an income over $100,000 had a computer at home, but that number dropped to just 54 percent for those with an income below $30,000.

The study showed a similar gap for internet access, with broadband access at home for 94 percent of adults with incomes over $100,000 compared to just 56 percent for those with incomes below $30,000.

Some districts were already launching limited online instruction last week and trying to address the “digital divide” affecting needy households.Tempe Union began loaning laptops to qualified students and Scottsdale Unified also began offering computers and a limited number of Verizon hotspot modems.

Scottsdale also partnered with a number of access providers to help families access the internet.

Through the Cox Communications’ Connect2Compete program, qualified families can receive a month of free service ($9.95 per month after) and receive free installation and wifi setup.

Scottsdale is also working with PCs for People to provide discounted computers for families.

Sprint and T-Mobile are also offering unlimited data to existing customers and Comcast Xfinity is offering free use of hotspots.

Gilbert students have access to a wide range of enrichment learning resources on the district’s website – but the work is not part of the curriculum and does not count towards a student’s grades.

During the closure, the district’s custodial team was doing a deep clean of all classrooms, according to Superintendent Shane McCord, who addressed the GPS Governing Board at a special meeting last Tuesday.

The GPS board encouraged the public to view the meeting from home but if they wanted to attend, audience seating was spaced far apart. It was unclear last week if the board will hold its regularly scheduled March 31 meeting or whether the expected announcement by Ducey today would prompt a special meeting by GPS’ board this week.

Neither GPS nor Higley Unified have addressed proms and graduations.

Some out-of-state universities already have announced their intentions to hold “virtual graduations” online in the expectation that recommended and mandatory limits of public gatherings to no more than 10 people will likely force cancelation of physical commencement exercises.

Meanwhile at the state Legislature, a bill is making its way to ease the requirement to make up days lost to closures.

SB 1693 spells out that if classes resume by March 30, there is no requirement for school districts to make up the lost days. It also would extend the window for required statewide standard assessment tests through the end of May.

That March 30 date is not chosen by accident. That is the date that state school Superintendent Kathy Hoffman last Sunday picked for reopening following a two-week closure in response to the spread of COVID-19 and the fact that teachers were calling in sick, leaving many classrooms without someone to lead them.

But the legislation crafted by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, – a part-time teacher – and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, has no such assumption that the emergency will be over by then.

If students are not back in school March 30, the lawmakers’ measure would suspend state laws that require there be a certain number of school days and instructional hours. It also would cancel the annual statewide achievement tests for this year and ensure that the letter grades now assigned to each school do not decline.

  The legislation also allows the state Board of Education to adopt rules to ensure graduation happens.

“What we figure is if a student is on track to graduate this year that we’re not going to do anything to prevent them from graduating,’’ Udall said.

But the most significant part her and Allen’s measure would be to require public schools to offer education services “in alternative formats’’ if they want to get their state aid. And it would allow schools to continue to pay employees to work from home or perform alternative assignments through the end of the school year. 

The GPS Governing Board last week adopted a resolution that allows the superintendent to continue regular payroll expenses during the crisis. The resolution also validated McCord’s decision to close the district’s schools. McCord made the decision to lock campuses two days before the governor shut down schools statewide.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said the legislation does provide a lot of flexibility.

He said it can include online lessons for students with access to computers. But Thomas said it also provides the opportunity for teachers to prepare and send home packets of materials for students to review.

Thomas said there is no real reason that many things cannot be taught remotely.

“You can take the SAT test online,’’ he said.

But that, Thomas said, requires months of preparation, something the state does not have.

“The trick is, we’re in kind of uncharted territory,’’ he said. And that, said Thomas, will require some creativity by educators.

The easiest situations to take care of, he said, might be for specific subject teachers. Consider, Thomas said, someone teaching social studies and lessons for the next two weeks involve the Civil War.

“Send out some readings, some assignments, some enrichment activities,’’ he said.

That last category, Thomas said, could be viewing a movie -- one that would be interesting enough for a parent to also enjoy and then be able to discuss the issues with a child.

And he said this isn’t a one-way street.

Students could show what they know, for example, by preparing and sending back a journal. Even an open-book test is an option.

“They’ll get that back to us, either email or some kind of form online or a packet,’’ Thomas said. “And we’ll grade that and that will be the grade they get for the assignment.’’

The legislation also contains some provisions designed to provide financial flexibility. For example, Udall said, money earmarked for student transportation could be reallocated to other priorities.