Most Kyrene School and Tempe Union students won’t be heading to classrooms as originally scheduled Aug. 17 and Tempe Union High School District students may not be returning to theirs for at least eight weeks.
Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely at a special Governing Board meeting Aug. 3 announced that only online instruction will be provided for most students for an indefinite time.
And the Tempe Union board on Aug. 5 approved an identical resolution extending online-only instruction until Oct. 13 - unless data on the status of COVID-19 cases in the district allows for a safe reopening of campuses earlier.
Under the governor’s latest order, school districts can offer in-class learning starting Aug. 17 based on data-driven health guidelines that the state is expected to issue before this week.
The governor’s order also requires districts to start offering free space Aug. 17 to children whose parents have no other place to send them.
While Kyrene will comply with that directive, the Governing Board also unanimously approved a resolution authorizing Vesely to seek a waiver from it “if the County Health Department, in conjunction with the Arizona Department of Health Services, advises the District to close due to a COVID-19 outbreak.”
Moreover, the governor’s order requiring on-site learning for students with no place to go provides districts with some wiggle room.
It says districts “may adopt procedures to ensure that the number of students present for free on-site support services does not exceed the maximum number of students who can be present in a facility while maintaining appropriate physical distancing.”
In a press conference hours before the Governing Board met, Marcy Flanagan, executive director of the county Department of Public Health, said it was unlikely campuses could reopen by next week.
Flanagan said county health officials have been meeting with a work group of top administrators from public and private schools – including Casteel – to discuss data-driven benchmarks rather than a specific date for reopening campuses.
“Given the benchmarks discussed with our work group and benchmarks that we believe a DHS may consider,” Flanagan said, “We are not currently meeting those benchmarks to have our schools fully reopen and go back to in-person teacher-led classes.
“I wouldn't provide a date certain” for reopening, she said, but rather would look at benchmarks – such as the level of reported new virus cases.
In order to safely open classrooms, the county health agency recommends waiting until there’s a decline in the percentage of positive tests in proportion to the total number of people tested.
Kyrene also issued a more detailed directive to parents today that said they would be notified by Aug. 11 if their children qualified for on-site instruction.
“Capacity is extremely limited due to these variables,” that announcement said. “Should there be additional capacity, space will be made available for the children of essential workers and other working families.”
Those variables included “available personnel capacity and physical space,” the announcement said.
In the meantime, Kyrene also will continue providing to qualifying students: breakfast and lunch, health services, targeted Special Education and related services, preschool for children with disabilities, transportation to and from schools and “opportunities for qualified students to access their online instruction under adult supervision.”
Kyrene already launched its Digital Academy last week to great success, according to Vesely, who said there are waiting lists at most grade levels.
The district had planned to offer parents on Aug. 17 the choice between in-class learning and a flex option that combined both in-class and at-home instruction.
But Vesely on Monday said that even while she and other district officials have been awaiting the state guidelines for campus reopenings, “concern over our ability to safely implement the option for in-person learning …Aug. 17 continues to grow.”
Vesely said that parents needed time to prepare their children for the first day of school in classrooms but that too much uncertainty remained concerning the extent of COVID-19 in Arizona to assure them that they could plan on sending their kids to campuses on Aug. 17.
She cited a Winkelman School District teacher who died of the coronavirus last month even though she had followed all safety protocols.
She also referred to Winkelman Superintendent Jeff Gregorich’s guest opinion piece in the Washington Post that called the desire to reopen campuses any time soon “a fantasy.”
“We see conflicting reports on transmission, severity of symptoms and impacted age groups,” Vesely said. “The uncertainty and disagreement even within the medical community is unsettling at best and alarming at worst.
“We're watching with growing concern stories of schools that have opened, taken every precaution to contain the spread of the virus, and having to quickly shut down again due to a student or teacher testing positive,” she added.
That was apparently a reference to school districts in three states on Monday that announced students and/or staff testing positive for COVID-19 within days after reopening classrooms.
Vesely said that the district had been prepared to open classrooms Aug. 17 under elevated safety measures – such as social distancing, mandatory masks for students and staff and intensive cleaning.
But she cited a letter that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman released just hours before the board meeting.
In that letter, Hoffman said, “As school leaders, we should prepare our families and teachers for the reality that it is unlikely that any school community will be able to open safely for traditional in-person or hybrid instruction by Aug. 17.”
“Our state is simply not ready to have all our students and educators congregate in school facilities,” Hoffman said. “If we want to return to in-person instruction, every Arizonan must make it their mission to slow the spread of the virus.”
In the meantime, Vesely also assured parents that the online instruction that will begin for Kyrene students who have not started the school year in the new Digital Academy will be radically different from what they experienced in the last quarter of the 2019-20 school year.
Vesely stressed that the online classes starting Aug. 17 will involve a rigorous daily schedule with interactive lessons. She also said the district was prepared to provide social-emotional support for students who need it.
“I want to assure the community that all of our decisions thus far have been considered very carefully and are driven by the most reliable data available,” Vesely said. “Politics have not been a factor.”
Meanwhile Tempe Union plans to keep campuses closed until at least Oct. 2 “unless metrics from the (county and state health departments) indicate that it is safe for students and staff to return to in-person instruction on an alternative date,” district spokeswoman Megan Sterling said.
She added that the district will provide space for stduents with no other place to go, but that details had not yet been finalized.
Horizon Honors also is starting the new school year Aug. 17 but only with online learning for all students.
“Because we do not yet have the metrics, we cannot predict when in-person learning might be advisable in our area,” school officials told Horizon parents in an email.