A Tempe Union High School Governing Board member last week slammed students for using a form letter to beg for the reopening of high schools, linking their pleas and protests to the volatile eight-candidate campaign for three board seats up for election in November.
The letters criticized by board member Andres Barraza were among dozens read at the board’s meeting last Wednesday after administrators indicated they are still hoping to have students in classrooms either two days a week or four on Oct. 13.
But Barraza said he doubts either will be possible then, stating he prefers to see students on campus only one day a week at least for part of the second quarter.
Neither the one, two or four-day scenarios sat well with the authors of most of the dozens of letters that were read at the meeting. For the most part, they urged a full reopening.
In a lengthy speech, Barraza lumped together many of those letters protesting campus closures with several incidents directed at three candidates, two of whom are not on the board.
He noted that racially tinged threats and insults have been posted on social media against board President Berdetta Hodge, signs belonging to candidate Don Fletcher have been defaced and a video of someone taking their life spammed an online discussion about student social-emotional wellness being led by candidate Armando Montero – who has crusaded since high school about the need for more counselors to curb teen suicides.
“I’m sick and tired of the politics,” Berraza said. “We are a school district, okay? We are first and foremost a community organization. The board is really just an oversight of what the district does.”
“So, this hatred in the community across all political spectrums has to stop. We’re talking students first and foremost. So, it’s just really upsetting and ...it dives deeper than that because right now we’re in a situation where we’re playing politics throughout the entire summer with this entire school function of being able to open properly.
“We have school board members and district staff and teachers trying to focus on being able to open properly and the politics is just so much that is just ridiculous,” Barraza continued. “It’s just beyond productive conversation. What I heard tonight was the same thing from people who wanted to remove SROs from our school district.”
Barraza noted that some people who emailed opinions during the board’s debate over school resource officers a few months ago also used form letters.
“It was students sending a template email to us board members. And I can’t believe that I’m literally reading the template that was sent to these students. We’ve got parents playing politics … telling their students fill out this template.”
He said the template advised, “Tell them why you want schools open. …Please let us go back to school as other East Valley schools are already allowed to go back.”
“This is getting ridiculous,” Barraza went on. “We had a problem with the SRO situation and I called them out on it because...we’re doing more working towards progress than just politics. We’re not going to answer to this. We’re going to do the right thing. So I would really encourage students that filled out that template – and I know who you are: listen to your letters.
“I know you want to go back. We all want to go back. We all want normalcy. We all want to get back to normal and have our community again. We want to see football. We want to see dance. We want to go to a theater. It’s just not in the cards right now and we have to work together.”
He also encouraged students to instead send a one-page letter “and say ‘my name is so-and-so and I go to this school. This is what I am going through.’”
“That is what’s going to resonate with us,” Barraza said, “not a template.”
Other board members after Barraza ignored the criticism of the letters but addressed different sectors of the school community.
Board member Michelle Helm praised teachers and thanked them for their work while Sandy Lowe addressed students, stating, “I see a light at the end of the tunnel I think we’re almost there and I think it’s sooner rather than later that you’re going to be back in school and we’re going to get everyone caught up and we’re going to move on and do some great things in the district.”
Board Vice President Brian Garcia turned back to the school board campaign and also criticized the campaign attacks on Montero and Hodge before stating:
“I’d like to end...addressing the challenges that our fellow candidates may have been going through in particular: we’re concerned overall and want to make sure that we always remember that we are a community and we’re all in this together, working to provide the best education for students, the best support for our teachers and staff.”
Barraza and Garcia are midway through their first four-year terms on the board. Hodge and Lowe are seeking reelection and Helm is retiring after five terms.
Hodge said, “We’re not against each other. We’re all on the same page.”
“We’re Tempe Union we’re going to do what’s best for our community,” Hodge said. “Every East Valley school doesn’t have the same ZIP codes in areas that we have. We have to look at what’s best for our district as board members. And I’m so proud to stand with four people that I know will support what’s best for Tempe Union at all times.”
During a presentation before the remarks, Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald laid out the metrics that the county is suggesting districts follow in deciding whether to reopen schools five days a week or break students into groups that are in classrooms one to four days a week and learning at home the rest of the time.
Although the board meets a day before the metrics are updated, the data released by the county Public Health Department on Thursday continued to show that two of the three benchmarks in Tempe ZIP codes 85281 and 85282 show a “substantial” COVID-19 presence. The main campus of Arizona State University is located in 85281 and the other ZIP code is adjacent to it to the south.
According to those voluntary county guidelines, a “substantial” or “red” zone means districts should continue online learning only while a moderate level or yellow indicates that hybrid learning with a few days on campus is safe.
The rest of the district – including Ahwatukee – is at least in the moderate category.
The data released the day after the board meeting shows that two of the three benchmarks in the ZIP codes for Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista high schools – 85244 and 85248, respectively – are at a minimal level for COVID-19 while the third is in a moderate range. In the category for virus cases per 100,000 people and in 85044, that number is 45. In 85048, there are 30 cases per 100,000.
But Ahwatukee’s other ZIP code, 85045, shows distinctly different metrics. It has 122 cases per 100,000, an indication of a “substantial” COVID-19 presence.
But even if all three benchmarks for all three Ahwatukee ZIP codes indicated that hybrid or five-day in-class options were safe, district officials reiterated last week what they have said at previous meetings: until the metrics in all district ZIP codes are in an acceptable range, at-home learning will continue for students – at least until Oct. 13, the tentative date for the beginning of hybrid learning.
On Oct. 13, students could either be broken into two groups with one group in classrooms Monday-Tuesday and the other Thursday-Friday. Or they could be allowed on campus together those four days. In both scenarios, students would learn at home on Wednesdays while their schools undergo deep cleaning and sanitizing.
Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil said if one or two high schools have ZIP codes with slightly higher COVID-19 readings, officials would provide additional support – such as “more diligent” temperature checks of students.
But Barraza said, “I think a one-day-a-week approach is where I feel comfortable.”
Noting he has been taking a conservative approach on reopening, McDonald said, “I wouldn’t put our students or staff in any type of danger if I didn’t believe the two-day-a-week model based on two things: that being the metrics and also how well people are doing with the health mitigation plan and putting those things in place… In my humble opinion, I think we’re going to be in good shape with the two days a week and it’s going to be able to provide a better opportunity for our students."