Gilbert Public Schools students won’t be returning to classrooms fulltime this week as previously planned but will spend the month in hybrid learning.
The Governing Board last week voted 3-2 for K-12 students to keep with hybrid instruction until Jan. 29, though that date could move up if vaccines become available for teachers sooner.
The hybrid model is meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus that is pushing up case counts in the community. It involves dividing student bodies into two groups that alternate between two and three days a week in classrooms.
“My goal is to get us back as soon as possible,” said board member Reed Carr, who made the motion. “My understanding is that teachers should start receiving vaccines in approximately a week to two weeks.”
Carr added that his personal preference was for fulltime in-person learning but he crafted his motion to be a compromise.
The board earlier unanimously rejected board President Charles Santa Cruz’s motion that called for K-6 students doing hybrid for two weeks in the third quarter, followed by virtual learning for the remainder of January and for grades 7-12 to go virtual Jan. 11-29.
During the nearly six-hour meeting last Monday, the board heard from 68 speakers on both sides of the issue. At one point over 3,000 viewers tuned into the live feed of the meeting.
Superintendent Shane McCord attended via telephone because he tested positive for the virus.
Over half of the speakers urged the board to keep its Dec. 15 decision for students to do one week of hybrid when they returned from winter break on Jan. 5 and then go to in-person learning five days a week.
Many of the parents who attended the meeting showed up because of reports of a possible teacher walkout last week.
“I want you to know that if you vote for our kids, you will not stand alone,” Justalyn Couser said. “We are here to help. If these teachers walk out, we will walk in. We will sub, we will volunteer, we will do whatever it takes to keep our kids in school.”
Parents talked about the struggles their children are having with online learning and the toll on their mental health from being kept out of classrooms.
Madison Judd, a fifth-grader at Mesquite Elementary, pleaded with the board to reopen campuses. She said students were following the district’s mitigation guidelines such as wearing masks.
“We’re being safe and responsible,” she said. “We need to be in school. It’s not healthy to keep us out. We will do anything to be in-person.”
Steve Walker, a dad of three kids, two of whom graduated from Desert Ridge High School, said his family made the decision to remove his daughter from GPS and enroll her at American Leadership Academy, a charter school where she is having a “fantastic experience.”
“I’m disappointed in you,” Walker said. “I’m disappointed by the board. I’m disappointed that I have to be here again having this conversation over and over again. It is a bad version of ‘Groundhog Day’” – a reference to a movie about a man stuck reliving the same day for years.
Walker told the board members it was their duty to ensure quality uninterrupted education and to follow the will of the people.
“For those good teachers afraid of COVID and don’t want to teach in-person due to the risks of their job, the district should repurpose these teachers if there is an open position,” he said. “If not, they should let them go.
“Those teachers that don’t want to teach in-person, that want to call a sick-out, act like a union and claim that they are not, they need to quit. They need to go get a different job.”
Jessica Peccia, a mom of two children, said families supported public education during the 2018 Red for Ed movement when teachers walked out to demand higher pay.
“Why are you refusing to support us and our children?” she asked. “When did you stop caring?”
Alli Troutman said she has six children attending GPS schools and wanted schools to reopen.
“I stand here today to let you know that I will no longer let you guys destroy and break down my family and my kids’ education,” she said.
“For those board members who don’t have kids in school, you guys have no skin in the game,” Troutman continued. “You personally do not know what it’s like for our children. My kids are not learning online or on hybrid. They are zombies by the end of the day.”
She said for those advocating for virtual learning, she had better not see them at a Costco, Walmart, grocery stores or salons because they should be doing all of that virtually.
Some parents noted that health care professionals, first responders and grocery workers show up to their jobs daily and so should teachers, who they said are essential workers.
They also vowed that they will remove their children from GPS and enroll them in a charter or private school if the board doesn’t reopen classrooms to in-person learning.
Data released Jan. 7 by the Maricopa County health department showed substantial virus spread continues in GPS and the town.
The data showed that cases per 100,000 people were at 653, down slightly from a week earlier. But positive test results jumped from 15.6 percent to 21 percent as the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms also remained in the substantial range at 12.9 percent – virtually unchanged from the previous week.
There have been no outbreaks at any of the district campuses, which have strict mitigation protocols in place.
Teachers said they returned to the classroom because the board voted in August to follow the state and county health benchmarks in determining the learning model but abandoned that in its December decision.
Carr said the board voted to adhere to county benchmarks before the board even knew what they were but now board members know much more about the virus.
He noted that the district’s mitigation plan was such that county health Director Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the Centers for Disease Control’s leading epidemiologist, deemed it was safe for GPS to hold in-person learning even with spread in the community.
Speakers also said some older students were not adhering to the district’s protocol on campus such as wearing their masks and asked the board to follow Chandler Unified School District’s lead, which earlier that day voted to go with virtual learning for two weeks.
A number of speakers such as Bonnie Hickman also referenced a New Year’s Eve party attended by hundreds of unmasked youths at a home in a county island in the Gilbert subdivision of Whitewing.
Hickman, a 26-year teacher in the district, asked the board for at least two weeks of hybrid learning to cover the incubation period for the virus.
“I know it’s going to be difficult to have in-person schooling if we end up with too many teachers in the hospital or actually not surviving COVID,” she said.
Hickman also reminded the board there was no more federal pandemic relief money to provide employees up to 10 sick days should they contract the virus.
“Hopefully, we will start getting the vaccine soon,” Hickman said. “I’ve prepared my classroom and myself as best I can. I have a top-notch air purifier in my room and I have a schedule, the kids wash their hands every hour and I have three weeks of sub plans ready.
“My son is grown and my will is up to date. I know where I’m going after this world so I’m not worried. I’m not afraid.”
Leda DeVlieger, a teacher and a parent of two kids, said her sister is an ICU nurse at a large Valley hospital and the beds in that unit are full.
She added she’s seen photos of children and adult standing shoulder to shoulder without masks and viewed videos of kids partying and going to dances because their parents want some sort of normalcy for them.
“The only reasonable thing is to return to virtual learning,” she said.
Sophie Hammer, who attends Gilbert Classical Academy, said this was not the first time she has come to the board to talk about school safety, having spoken about the virus in August before the academic year started.
“But here I am again begging my school district to take a pandemic and let me reiterate, a pandemic more seriously,” Hammer said. “I want to go back to school. As a senior I want to make this year count but not at the expense of my teachers and my peers.
“Trust me I hear your concerns about mental health. I struggle with OCD and generalized anxiety myself. I take virtual counseling. I do think we need to emphasize mental health counseling more.”
She went on to cite case numbers in Arizona and said under the health benchmarks, the district should be instituting virtual learning.
“We’re not asking for virtual learning for long, minimum of two weeks,” she said. “We don’t want to see any more deaths and we do not want to see cases rise. We just want to know the school board cares about the health of our teachers and most importantly the health of students.”
Special education teacher Carrah Dodd, speaking on behalf of the Gilbert Education Association, said GEA has not promoted a sickout due to the fluid situation brought on by the pandemic.
Dodd offered a number of recommendations for the board that included virtual learning for students after winter break until two of the three health metrics indicate minimal virus spread.
She also suggested the district partner with an agency to offer COVID-19 testing for employees and to update the district dashboard daily.
Board members Lori Wood and Jill Humpherys supported Carr’s motion. Hunpherys saw it as a good compromise.
Wood said the cases have been increasing even when students haven’t been in school during the break and questioned how staying out of school would keep the virus from spreading in the community.
She said it was the district’s responsibility to educate the students and it should be looking for a mitigation strategy to keep teachers safe.
She added other surrounding schools are opened for fulltime in-person learning and that the board’s decision would impact students and their learning.
Board member Shelia Uggetti said the district was doing this backwards and should have virtual learning for two weeks and then look at going back full time. She and Santa Cruz voted against the motion.