Tempe Union campus’ students

This chart shows the percentage of each Tempe Union campus’ students who are returning versus those opting for at-home learning the rest of the semester.

Thousands of students were to return yesterday to Tempe Union campuses and thousands more tomorrow as the district reopened classrooms for the first time since mid-March.

While all other East Valley school districts, including Kyrene, fully reopened for five-day in-class learning this week or earlier, Tempe Union officials are taking a conservative approach by breaking up each high school’s student population into two groups that will either be in classrooms Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday. 

The rest of the time, they will continue at-home learning. All students will be at home on Wednesdays, which has been designated for deep cleaning and sanitizing all buildings and rooms.

Since the district observed the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples holiday on Monday, yesterday was the first day for the mass in-classroom return.

Returning students and teachers face a starkly different environment than the one they left when all schools in the state were shut down in March at the onset of the pandemic.

Students and teachers will have to answer three COVID-19-related questions and have their temperature checked at the main door every day. Masks will be mandatory for all students and staff. Students will be sitting 6 feet away from classmates in classrooms and from friends in the cafeteria for the most part.

Tempe Union’s cautious approach to reopening partly reflects the great disparity among district ZIP codes when it comes to the three metrics the county advises districts to follow in deciding when campuses are safe.

Overall, according to the latest data posted by the county health department last Thursday, the district is in a moderate level for COVID-19 spread. 

District-wide, the data last week showed 63.28 virus cases per 100,000 people, 3.23 positive results for new tests and 2 percent of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms.

Cases per 100,000 were slightly higher than the previous week’s reading, which was 55.87 for the district.

Individual ZIP codes vary wildly for that particular benchmark. For example, 85281 – the ZIP code where the main Arizona State University campus is located – had 131.29 cases per 100,000, indicating “substantial” virus spread. 

On the other hand, Ahwatukee ZIP code 85045 had zero cases while Ahwatukee ZIP codes 85044 and 85048 had 40 and 50 cases, respectively, according to the county.

During the Governing Board’s last meeting Sept. 22, the disparity in the readings prompted board member Andres Barraza to again call for opening classrooms only one day a week, splitting student bodies into four groups instead of the current two.

But Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil and his aides rejected that proposal, saying it was unworkable. They also have said that additional safety measures would be in place for schools in ZIP codes with higher virus readings.

A survey of parents students that drew 7,134 replies showed that roughly 61 percent of Tempe Union’s approximate 11,000 students were likely returning for the limited in-classroom instruction while the rest will stay with distance learning for the rest of the semester.

Desert Vista High will see the highest percentage of students returning among the district’s seven campuses. The survey showed 70 percent of Desert Vista’s students would be on campus.

Mountain Pointe had the fourth highest percentage – 55 percent – of students returning, behind Corona del Sol (64 percent) and Marcos De Niza (64).

The survey also showed students whose household income is low enough to qualify them for free or reduced-price lunches were less likely to return for in-class learning, with about 54 percent opting for classrooms as opposed to 67 percent of non-Title 1 students.

No mention has been made by Tempe Union officials as to whether they will follow Mesa Public Schools, Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified in posting COVID-19 cases by school. Those three districts last week said they would update a school-by-school dashboard showing cases reported to them, though they are not distinguishing between students and staff for privacy reasons.

Social distancing will be enforced in hallways with students moving in single file along routes marked by floor stickers while desks will be separated 6 feet apart.

Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald told the board Sept. 22 that for the most part, Tempe Union schools have three different sizes of classrooms and most will be able to safely seat 12 to 18 students.

Governing Board members will get a pretty immediate report on how Tuesday’s return worked: they have their only meeting of the month tonight, Oct. 14.

And Mendivil warned them last month not to expect a perfect re-entry, particularly as teachers are still learning to navigate a schedule that not only makes them juggle at-home and in-class teaching but possibly also teaching the same class to two different sets of students on different days of the week.

“Our teachers – they’re wonderful,” Mendivil said. “They’re perfectionists. They want everything to be perfect on day one and it’s not going to be. And it’s okay.”

Board President Berdetta Hodge wondered if the district has enough manpower to keep students in line and obey social distancing rules and to administer the temperature tests and screening that will be done daily as students and teachers enter each building.

“We have a mantra,” McDonald replied. “It’s going to be all hands on deck during this time.”

How long that time will last is an open question. Mendivil has previously told the board that the current hybrid learning format could continue at least for the rest of 2020.

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