Higley Unified School District

Children in Higley Unified School District last week returned to full five-day in-classroom learning for the first time since March, when schools were shut down as the pandemic put Arizona in its grip.

A day after students returned to campuses in Higley Unified School District, members of the Governing Board last Wednesday praised and thanked staff and teachers for their efforts in making it possible.

But now-former teacher Amy Ludwig found the compliments to be disingenuous and told the board so. 

“I had to quit my job today because I am unhealthy due to my stress level because of the decision that you made,” said Ludwig, who taught 5th grade at San Tan Elementary School. “You could have waited and given teachers the time that we needed, given families the time they needed.

“You’re sitting here saying, ‘thank you for all of our hard work’ but those words are lost on me. I’m so glad in my heart that it’s meaningful to you.”

Scott Glover, a teacher, was the only board member whom Ludwig thanked for supporting educators and students. Glover last month cast the sole vote against moving up in-person learning to Sept. 8 from Oct. 12.

“To the rest of the board. this is my fourth year teaching,” Ludwig said. “I thought that the first six weeks of this year was hard. That was nothing compared to how this week has been and it’s Day Two.”

Students began remote learning July 27 and last Tuesday either transitioned back to the classroom or stayed with online learning.

“You said all these lovely words about how much you appreciated how hard teachers are working,” Ludwig continued. “But I don’t think you really understand fully what is going on inside the classrooms right now. Every teacher that I know is working a minimum of 12 hours a day. They’re working weekends. 

“That’s time sacrificed from our families, time that we’re not getting compensated for. At this point if I incorporated those hours into my pay, I’m making about $13 an hour.”

Ludwig said the district is expecting teachers to take on extra duties – such as sanitizing between classes and making sure student are wearing their masks – yet the pacing guide, which helps teachers stay on track, hasn’t been adjusted.

 She said teachers are still required to teach the same amount of content as in a regular school year and questioned how that was possible with the limited time.

Similar complaints have been raised by teachers in other area school districts, including Mesa Public Schools, where even a board member wondered how one teacher can deal with both in-classroom and online learning at the same time once their campuses begin a gradual reopening Monday, Sept. 14.

“It’s very difficult and you made this decision by cherry-picking your data and you were not up front and clear about that,” Ludwig told the Higley board, alluding to the state health metrics recommended for districts to meet before reopening schools. 

“If teachers were to do that, I think we’d probably have a lot more A-plus schools in the state but, of course, we are not allowed to do that nor would we because we like for our data to be accurate because that’s how we effectively teach.”

She also criticized the board for only giving a one-week notice to teachers and families to prepare to come back to campuses.

 “So that was so nice of you to do it over the Labor Day weekend so that we could sacrifice our three-day weekend to be in the classroom preparing because guess what – my classroom was not prepared because my hours, hours and hours of time were spent creating my online canvas,” Ludwig said.

She said teachers were given a 44-page playbook that’s constantly changing and though she loved teaching with its amazing students and supportive parents, she couldn’t take it anymore.

Ludwig isn’t the only district teacher to step away from the profession due to COVID-19. 

The board last week approved releasing five teachers and one instructional coach from their contracts for a total of nine educators who have left the district so far due to COVID-19 concerns, district spokeswoman Michelle Reese said.

Last school year, there were a total of three teacher resignations, Reese said.

Glover pointed to a consent item on the agenda that was approved giving stipends to staff in recognition of the extra work they’ve had to perform. 

Superintendent Mike Thomason said that 60 teachers across the district stepped up to teach an extra section.

“We have lost teachers, we have lost a lot of paraprofessionals, we’ve lost food service, we’ve lost other classified,” Glover said. “It is just a shame. There is such as human cost to all of this. It’s really taken a toll on everybody and I hope that at some point we can come out of this and somehow be OK.”

Parents also voiced their concern to the board last week.

Melina Rangel and her husband, Phillip Rangel, said their 12-year-old daughter was not getting the support she needed for online learning.

“I’ve asked at the last board meeting that you just please take the time to make a good decision because we all can’t go back to school as a high-risk family,” Melina Rangel said. 

“My concern is that they went to school on very short notice, very little information from Sossaman Junior High School on what our options were,” she added.

Phillip Rangel said his daughter is in accelerated classes and he is fearful she will fall behind. 

 “As it stands right now my daughter is struggling at age 12 with online learning,” he said. “She wants to learn but there are no teachers willing to help.”

He said his daughter was told she can communicate directly with her teachers but they have combined together and are available for one hour.

“If she has any questions, she is supposed to go to every one of her teachers within an hour period,” he said. “She has no interaction with anybody else. She deals directly with a module that she has to figure out herself. Colleges don’t do that.”

He said his daughter was recently given a class assignment, one that his son completed last year at Centennial Elementary School when he was in the third grade.

“We were there at Centennial Elementary with signs and honking horns for Red for Ed because it was a cause that we believed in,” Rangel said, adding:

 “I feel like this is the time we need to be paid back. Our students should not have to suffer because you chose not to give them a proper education.”

He said the school principal had set up a Zoom call with them to discuss the situation.

“We work 10 to 12 hours a day just like the teachers do,” he said. “How are we supposed to take the time off from our schedules? It’s a lot of inconvenience to me as a parent.”

He said he’s not been able to get answers to why a camera can’t be set up in a classroom as a teacher is giving a lesson.

“I don’t want to see my daughter suffer,” he added. “There’s nothing like seeing a child that is sad and frustrated and have no one to go to other than her parents because the teachers are not there. Online is a complete mess. All I’m asking for is time for it to get fixed. We’ve been in the pandemic since March.”

He said he works for Wells Fargo and the company was able to transition its workforce to home within two months during the pandemic.

“But it’s now been six months for Higley Unified School District,” he said. “I know our tax dollars are going to this somehow. We can figure it out.”

 Thomason later in the meeting indicated he will be reaching out to both Ludwig and the Rangels. 

“Every section has an assigned teacher,” said spokeswoman Reese in an email. “Higley is working hard to continue the transition from remote learning to online and in-person learning. We made every effort to inform families at the secondary level – including middle school – that online learning for their students would be self-paced with scheduled office hours for live instructional support.”

The board also heard a school update from staff that included band and orchestra was being offered for online students through a free after-school course. 

David Loutzenheiser, executive director of Secondary Education, said 66 students currently were participating.

He added the district is offering more core and elective courses and that the federal government has extended the free meals program for children 18 and younger to the end of the year so that students are now able to eat breakfast and lunch for free. 

And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the district is offering food packages for individuals who need support at Higley Traditional Academy, he said.