Higley High seniors

Higley High seniors began showing up for their virtual graduation filming last week.

When schools re-open in the fall, students could either be back at their classroom desks or at home in front of a computer screen.

Superintendents from three East Valley school districts last week said how learning will look like was still up in the air as they wait for direction from state and federal officials.

“One thing that most school districts need across the state of Arizona is information right now,” said Higley Unified Superintendent Mike Thomason. “We’re stuck in limbo on how to move forward to fall’s opening. We need to know from the state government and CDC how many people we can have in a setting.”

Thomason, Gilbert Public School Superintendent Shane McCord and Mesa Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Andi Fourlis participated in Gilbert Chamber of Commerce’s second weekly Non-Profit Town Hall. Fourlis will assume the superintendent’s job July 1.  

Thomason said his district in southeast Gilbert has devised different plans based on various size restrictions that might be in place – from opening up at half capacity to full online learning – and needed guidance before knowing which direction to take.

He said whatever comes down from state officials can’t be on short notice.

If the district has to wait on implementing a plan until mid-June to early July, it’s “too late,” according to Thomason.

McCord echoed his peer’s comments.

“We have plans A to Z available but don’t know which one to enact,” McCord said. 

He said a plan to re-integrate students back into the school system could range from no change to a drastic change of fully on-line learning and variations in between.

“They’re not plans now, just thoughts and ideas, sketches until we hear more from the state,” McCord said. “Every school district was hit by this. Everyone expected it to last a couple of weeks and then go back.”

He said his district, the fifth largest in the state, successfully rolled out remote learning and made sure all families had the resources they needed for it. 

However, the novelty of distance learning has worn off for students – who are missing their friends – he said.

“They get most of their energy from each other – that is what they are missing,” he said.

Fourlis noted state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has assembled a task force to come up with guidelines for re-opening schools, which is due out May 30.

In the meantime, the district – Arizona’s largest – is spending a lot of time trying to mitigate “learning loss” since Mesa students have been out of school since March 6, Fourlis said.

She said the district was making sure there are daily check-ins with pupils to help on that front but it’s not been 100 percent at all the schools.

During an MPS Governing Board meeting last month, Marlo Loria, district executive director of innovative partnerships, said an estimated 7,000 students – many from homeless households – had neither a digital device nor internet service to access online courses.

“One of the most glaring disparities that we knew existed pre-COVID-19 but has been really exacerbated by this crisis is what we call the ‘digital divide,’” she said.

“We know that in a remote learning environment, online instruction provides many more enrichment opportunities that are so much better than just a one-dimensional packet” of printed lessons, Loria said, adding that at this point, all high school seniors had devices.

But she also noted that even some seniors are challenged when they have siblings who have to share that laptop or computer,

“If there’s only one computer in a home with five siblings, that device is going to get stretched pretty thin,” Loria told the board.

Some Valley districts are anticipating some kind of classroom social-distancing and already are examining space availability in their schools.

In addition, there is some concern in districts over how many parents might not want to send their kids back to school at least for the early part of the 2020-21 school year as well as over how many teachers may be reluctant to return over fears of getting infected.

During the Chamber forum, Fourlis said MPS also is making sure to take care of its staff, adding that a recent “Employee Pulse Survey” found many felt “incredibly disconnected with their students” because they have not been with them in classrooms. 

She added the district is aware that upon reopening for the new school year, it will need to focus its energy on assessing the students on where they are academically so administrators will know where to direct resources and staff.

“We absolutely need direction from the state right now,” she said. “Lots of school districts are navigating with limited information that is constantly changing.”

McCord and Thomason also gave an update on their districts’ feeding program for students, 18 and younger, during the closure. About 40 people listened in on the Zoom event.

Thomason said HUSD was handing out an average of 6,000 meals a day at seven sites. He added the district has a weekly cost of $750 for a refrigerated truck to deliver the meals to the sites.

McCord said GPS gives out between 6,500 and 7,000 meals a day at eight locations.

The town hall also featured Rachel Milne, assistant director of Maricopa County Housing and Community Development, who spoke on efforts to help the homeless population – including those who have COVID-19, those suspected of having it and those who don’t have it but are in a high-risk population – 65 and older or have underlying health issues – and want to self-isolate.

Michelle Albanese, Mesa director of housing and community development, reported the city has allocated $1 million in Emergency Solutions Grants from the CARES Act to five nonprofits, such as A New Leaf, to help those affected by the pandemic. 

The act is a $2 trillion relief package Congress passed in March to help residents and businesses in the country deal with the economic fallout from COVID-19.

Albanese said the Mesa has not yet decided how to use the $2.3 million in Community Development Block Grant.

Mesa also received $90 million from the U.S. Treasury for COVID-19 relief and was using some of it to help re-energize small businesses with grants, according to Albanese.

Melanie Dykstra, Gilbert Community Resources supervisor, said the town received $568,000 in CDBG monies from CARES and may receive funding from the state but has not heard on that yet. 

The state has received more than $7.2 billion in CARES funding and some of that money is expected to be distributed to municipalities. Only Mesa, Phoenix, Tucson and Maricopa and Pima counties qualified for direct CARES funds because their populations exceed 500,000.

During a separate discussion with business leaders across Arizona on May 7, Gov. Doug Ducey said his office has been contacted by several mayors inquiring about the CARES Act funding.

Ducey said he will be devising policies in the near future for its distribution. 

“We know it’s something that needs to be addressed and we’re gonna have good policy on it going forward,” he said.

Gilbert gave nonprofits two weeks to apply for some of the HUD grant money and Dykstra said the town received 12 applications totaling over $1 million – nearly twice what it received from the federal government – and so choices need to be made.

A recommendation for awarding the grants is expected to go for Council approval in the first meeting in June, she said.