Tempe Union High School District

Parents demanding a full return to in-class learning in Tempe Union High School District supported a billboard that was erected along I-10 last week.

Tempe Union High School District may reopen classrooms for four days a week March 15 – and then again, it may not.

The Governing Board last week devoted most of its five-hour meeting to the question of whether it will be safe to allow students back on campus for the first time since Thanksgiving – and reopen for more than two days a week for the first time since last March. Parents, students and others sent 48 emails to the board on the reopening controversy.

While admitting that students are struggling and failing grades are proving that, neither Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil nor the board were willing to fully commit to a March 15 reopening yet because of a number of factors, although they all appeared in favor of a four-day instead of five-day model if they do reopen schools after spring break.

Among the factors affecting a final decision are the number of teachers and students – and the students’ parents – who will return to campuses, what the metrics measuring COVID-19 spread will show and the likelihood of staying open for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.

Although there was a slight decline in COVID-19 cases per 100,000 posted by the county health department on Feb. 4, the day after the board meeting, all three metrics within Tempe Union’s borders are well within the substantial category for virus spread.

Those same high virus-spread readings exist in Tempe Union’s largest immediate neighbors -- Mesa Public Schools, Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified, which have reopened to 5-day classroom learning.

But board member Sarah James urged a cautious approach to any decision on reopening classrooms, saying the last thing she wanted to do was reopen campuses only to have to shut them down again.

“In 22 years of education,” said James, a teacher, “one of the most important things I can provide my students is consistency.”

“We do not need our schools, our classrooms, to be bouncing back and forth between different modes of learning,” said James, arguing that many districts that have reopened at times have closed partially or completely since the current school year began and then reopened.

While officials were expressing hope that a downward trend in virus would continue to the point that virus spread levels justified reopening campuses, a few board members worried about letting students back on campus immediately after spring break. 

Some, including James, wondered if it made more sense to wait at least a week.

Some of that concern was driven by observations the board heard from two professionals that Mendivil invited – Dr. Neal Woodbury, vice president of research and chief science and technology officer for Arizona State University’s School of Molecular Sciences and Dr. Amy Jo Overlin, head team physician for Tempe Union, Chandler Gilbert Community College and the Phoenix Mercury.

“We have notably spiked every time after a holiday throughout this pandemic,” said Overlin, “and obviously, we have spring break coming – which for our students’ families is a holiday. So, we can expect increased travel and potential increased exposure over that time. Though I do think overall we’re going to trend downwards, we could see an additional small spike during the March area when we’re trying to get into our fourth quarter. So that’s going to be a challenge for us.”

Other concerns were raised as well as the board discussed whether in-class learning should be offered four or five days a week.

“I’m very hesitant about that because we’re talking about the need for mitigation strategies, especially when we’re still in substantial spread or teetering on the verge of or coming back from spring break that could potentially put us back and the social distancing aspect potentially won’t happen in class,” said James.

Board members also expressed concerns about how students could be kept socially distant not only in class but in cafeterias and hallways if a significant portion of the student body returns. 

And there was concern about how many teachers might be fully vaccinated by the March 15 date.

Mendivil stressed the need for flexibility in making a reopening decision, noting that a survey of Tempe Union teachers indicated that around a third of teachers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald said 794 teachers responded to a district survey about vaccines and that 613 indicated they got at least one shot.

The board spent considerable time not only discussing whether to reopen but also on balancing the academic and mental health needs of students in classrooms with those who opt to remain in online learning.

Mendivil said that Tempe Union teachers have largely discounted the effectiveness of having students on campus two days a week.

While five days on campus remains an option, the board appeared more inclined to go with the four-day model, with all students learning at home on Wednesdays so that schools could be deep-cleaned and teachers could devote some time to helping students regain some of the academic ground they have lost this school year.

“We have only one meeting before March and if we’re looking at March 15,” said board member Andres Barraza, “I don’t think we can have any confusion among our community members or among staff members. I think we need this now.”

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