Just over 2,600 of Kyrene’s youngest students will return to classrooms for the first time since mid-March as the district’s rolling reopening begins Thursday.
While those youngsters in kindergarten through second grade return to a far different environment than some of them left in March, about 1,557 of their classmates will continue learning from home under the district’s flex option, likely waiting at least until January to head back into classrooms.
Next week, on Sept. 24, just over 2,700 students in third through fifth grade will go back to Kyrene’s 19 elementary campuses while about 3,000 middle school students won’t be back in classrooms until the second quarter begins Oct. 13.
During last week’s Governing Board meeting, Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely and other administrators detailed the elaborate measures they have developed to maintain safe environments for the children whose parents have opted to send them back to school.
By the time the phased reopening is completed, officials estimate, almost 8,400 students will be in classrooms – barring any significant surge in COVID-19 that warrants a full return to distance learning. Another 5,700 or so will continue learning at home in the flex model for the time being while another 1,300 are in the new Kyrene Digital Academy for the rest of the 2020-21 school year.
The district’s reopening plan is similar to Chandler Unified, which started an identical rolling reopening on Monday. Higley Unified opened classrooms to all grades last week while neighboring Gilbert Public Schools reopened to groups of students who will be in classrooms two days a week. Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest district, two days ago reopened its campuses along the lines of the GPS model.
Tempe Union remains online only for all students, and it is unclear from the agenda for tonight’s Governing Board whether that will change before a promised reopening on Oct. 13.
Kyrene’s mitigation strategies – similar to those in effect at other East Valley districts – include socially distanced desks, single-file movement through corridors during the rare times students will even leave their rooms and, of course, mandatory masks on school grounds and in buses.
Signs of all kinds will be posted throughout buildings, many not only reminding students to wash their hands but also showing them how to do it properly. There will be no sharing of basic classroom supplies and students will largely stay together whether they’re in classrooms or on the playground, restricted from mingling with those in other classes or grades.
The district itself implemented other measures, including high-performance HEPA filtering units in every classroom that will clean the air every 35 minutes and capture just over 99 percent of all air particles and nightly cleaning and disinfecting.
There are some measures the district could not afford to enact, including more spacing of students on buses and in classrooms.
Kyrene Chief Financial Officer Chris Herrmann noted that the district received a relative pittance in additional funding for virus mitigation.
For example, the district’s share of federal pandemic relief amounts to $955,000. To have only one student for every school bus bench on a bus, Kyrene would need to hire approximately 60 additional drivers and purchase 41 additional buses for a total $7.7 million, Herrmann said.
Hiring that many drivers would be “extremely challenging,” he added, because “the district is not able to hire enough bus drivers today to meet its current staffing needs.”
To reduce class sizes to 15 students and provide optimum spacing of desks, Herrmann said, the district would need to hire 420 additional teachers at a cost of $30 million. Not only is this a budget buster, but it’s nearly impossible to find that many teachers as Arizona confronts a shortage of educators.
“The only other option for smaller class sizes would be to implement a staggered schedule where students would only be on campus for a couple of days a week and learn from home on the other days – which again has not favored by our families and is disruptive to student learning,” Herrmann told the board.
“However, the cohort model which each school has put in place – which keeps the same groups of students together all day long – will minimize continued risk of potential exposure and transmission of COVID-19.”
While any gatherings such as assemblies have been canceled at least through Oct. 31, officials said performing arts teachers are exploring strategies for band, orchestra and theater so that those students can practice.
The district also will be paying particular attention to all students’ social and emotional well being
Board members appeared pleased with the level of detail they heard.
“I think you really did a phenomenal job really painting that picture for our families to help them understand what schools are going to look like,” board member Michelle Fahy told Vesely’s team. “I think you really helped us see that while It’s going to look different, it’s going to also feel a lot like the same. I think that reassuring the families that when they come back it’s not going to be completely different.”