As more Valley school districts begin rolling out reopening plans in the shadow of a surge in COVID-19 cases in Arizona, Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil last week unveiled a plan that would put students in classrooms only once a week – and then without most of their classmates.
Only hours after Gov. Doug Ducey cited the alarming rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, Mendivil announced that parents will have only two choices for their kids at the district’s seven campuses.
Students can have five-days of distance learning or they can have four and return to school one day a week on staggered schedules so that the entire student body – or even all members of one grade – will never be on campus together. Classrooms would see no more than a dozen students for any course.
The announcement drew mixed and strong reactions from parents.
Some hailed Mendivil’s bold move as a way to protect students and staff while others condemned its impact on students’ ability to learn and enjoy a high school experience that already has been ravaged by social distancing measures necessitated by the pandemic.
One parent started an online petition to demand a five-day in-class option, garnering slightly more than 1,000 signatures in five days.
At 3:15 p.m. today, June 24, parents were urged to show up at the district headquarters, 500 W. Guadalupe Road, Tempe, to protest the absence of a five-day in-class option.
The public is not allowed in the board room because of social distancing and the board is scheduled to discuss school resource officers at a 4 p.m. study session.
Mendivil stressed the virus surge was as the reason behind his plan.
“We put students first and you’ve heard this before in other presentations, but it does ground us in the work that we do on behalf of our students and putting their academic and their social- emotional needs at the forefront of everything that we do,” he said.
“We also believe that our students can learn best when they feel safe, when we know they’re safe and they’re in a well-maintained learning environment,” he continued. “But our employees matter just as much and it’s important for us to provide a healthy safe and supportive work environment for all of our employees.”
Mendivil’s plan is a sharp departure from what neighboring districts with high schools are advancing. Mesa Public Schools last week rolled out three options – all on-line, five days in classrooms and a hybrid of those two.
Gilbert, Higley and Chandler are all expected to release preliminary reopening plans this week and their superintendents also have signaled that a full-time in-class option is among them.
Regardless, virtually all the plans – like Tempe Union – show that as long as COVID-19 remains a major health concern, social distancing will be shredding high school life on campuses for at least a few months.
While Tempe Union is working on a “grab and go” approach to lunch for students who do come to class, Mesa said its junior and senior high schools will enforce social distancing in the cafeteria, forcing friends to sit six feet apart from each other.
Assemblies, including spirit gatherings before games, and field trips are history, at least in the short term.
“We’re not going to have large events and school-wide assemblies or student travel at this time – until it is determined to be safe by our health officials,” Mendivil said.
“That doesn’t mean we can’t have an assembly in a different manner, especially done virtually, and we’re looking at variety of ways in which that can happen in a new and exciting different way,” he said.
Extracurriculars appear to be somewhat limited.
“Having the students on campus at least once or twice a day allow club activities to be maintained, whether it’s on that day that students are there or done virtually,” Mendivil said.
As for sports, Mendivil said the district will rely on guidance from the Arizona Interscholastic Association, which has not yet said what might happen with the fall season, including football.
But whatever the AIA decides will still require Tempe Union and all other districts to issue rules on how many fans will be allowed in stadium bleachers. Unless social distancing requirements are eased, that likely means students and fans won’t be packed into them shoulder-to-shoulder.
“We’re trying to keep the students’ high school experience as much intact as possible,” Mendivil said, “so that if we are able to return to normal school setting, things just can happen quickly and naturally and seamlessly with our students and families.”
Some parents complained online that it appeared Tempe Union officials did not take their survey responses into consideration while developing the reopening plan.
The responses from about 6,200 parents showed no dominant attitude toward how safe it was for students to return to campus, with about half answering either “concerned” or “very concerned” and the remainder “very safe” or “safe.”
Slightly more than 50 percent of teachers felt concerned or very concerned about being on campus while only 35 percent felt it was “safe” or “very safe.”
But Mendivil suggested that the survey responses were collected before a steady surge in virus cases began appearing in Arizona over the last two weeks.
And he said a continuation of that trend could alter reopening plans.
“This is a fluid model,” he said. “This is based on what we know today. I need to make that very clear to everyone because if things worsen, we are going to have to adjust accordingly because I will not put our students nor will I put our staff in an unsafe environment.”
Still, Mendivil added, “I’m confident that we are able to connect our students with their teachers in a safe manner at the beginning of the school year unless something even more drastic happens.”
“It gets students to school for a sense of normalcy – to have them come to school and just experience that is very important,” he said.
Making connections was important, especially for freshmen just entering.
“I know our principals already are sharing that because they are concerned about the incoming freshmen,” Mendivil said. “It’s their first time in high school, first time in our schools, and they’re having to come in this manner. So, it’s the most ideal but we want to make it special for them and in some way, shape or form.”
Board members indicated they still had numerous questions about the overall plan.
One included attendance.
Board member Michelle Helm noted that students with 10 classes in a course have that course dropped from their schedule.
“We have discussed this except it’s out of my hands in terms of making that decision,” Mendivil replied, saying he has posed that question to the Legislature, governor and state Superintendent of Public Schools Kathy Hoffman.
He said students could check in for each course online but added, “I don’t know if that’s reasonable.”
He said alternatives would be through assessment tests measuring what students have learned or looking at courses and assignments they’ve completed.
“Those are valid questions that we’ve been asking for months, actually,” Mendivil said. “I’m hoping that we will have more flexibility during this time because you can’t continue to expect that school districts run with the same models of rules and guidelines when we’re doing something entirely different.”