COVID-19 metrics in ZIP codes – especially some feeding Mountain Pointe and Tempe High – continue to drive Tempe Union’s cautious approach to partially reopening classrooms.
And that caution sparked concerns among some Governing Board members last week over whether hybrid learning might be delayed beyond Oct. 13.
At the board’s Sept. 2 meeting, officials did not indicate an overarching schedule for hybrid learning, where groups of students alternate on campus different days of the week.
Tempe Union is still studying options that open classrooms one, two, three or four days a week, depending on three COVID-19 benchmarks that Maricopa County health officials suggest districts should follow in determining their reopening plans.
Some board members also expressed concern over how well hybrid learning will even work, suggesting teachers may be asked to do too much as they toggle between teaching students in classrooms and others at home.
Those concerns mirrored the frustration and anxiety expressed in many of the 17 emails from parents and teachers that were read at the meeting, where some board members pressed Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil on whether opening some of Tempe Union’s seven campuses now is an option.
But Mendivil said Tempe Union will adhere to what one of his aides called a “one district, one family” approach.
“In the discussions with the principals,” Mendivil said, “they are very adamant and want to be united.”
“We are a family of schools and it just pits schools one school against the other” he said, if only some schools allowed students in classrooms for a few days a week while others stayed fully online.
Some of Tempe Union’s neighbors, notably Mesa Public Schools and Gilbert Public Schools have adopted a hybrid model where students can come to class two days a week.
Student bodies in both those districts are divided alphabetically by the first letter of their last name to reduce the number on campus at any one time and the two groups alternate between classroom and home instruction. GPS started that model yesterday, Sept. 8, and MPS is slated to start theirs next Monday.
Higley Unified – where benchmarks suggest a hybrid model – yesterday began in-class learning five days a week.
Chandler Unified is following Kyrene’s “rolling reopening,” starting with K-2 grades returning next Monday to classrooms. But its junior and senior high schools won’t reopen for five-day in-class instruction until Oct. 13.
In Ahwatukee, Kyrene schools start a five-day in-class option for K-2 students Sept. 17, followed by grades 3-6 returning Sept. 24 and middle schools reopening Oct. 13.
Horizon Honors on Monday will begin a three-week phased reopening for five-day in-class instruction, but it is starting with grades 7-12, followed a week later for K-6.
Horizon Honors students in all grades also can wait until Oct. 7 to return for five days in the classroom or stay with online learning for at least the rest of 2020.
Questions about the timing of hybrid learning arose after Mendivil noted that more than half of Tempe Union’s teachers are still working from home and that he needs them all on campus so they can become familiar with adapting to teaching students in classrooms while others are learning at home.
But he gave no indication when that might occur.
That uncertainty is driven not as much by the COVID-19 transmission levels within Tempe Union’s boundaries as those in ZIP codes outside the district that are home to hundreds of students, particularly at Mountain Pointe and Tempe High.
Essentially, county data indicate a “substantial” COVID-19 level in some of the ZIP codes that together account for more than a fifth of Mountain Pointe’s student body.
Citing the unevenness of that data, board member Michelle Helm asked Mendivil, “We could go along like this for months maybe – where one school never quite reaches the numbers and all our other schools might be waiting. Is that our intention?
Mendivil replied, “I would say no, that’s not our intention.”
But he cited the trends in “multiple ZIP codes that we have to respond to” and reiterated, ”We want to be in a position where we can all open together.”
But that is only one of the challenges Mendivil cited in reopening.
“We need to develop a process in which everyone understands their role – students, staff, parents, everybody,” he said. “Everybody has a role and we’ve got to get people on campus for that to happen, but we’ve got to do it safely and I need more than one day or two days with staff.
“We do need time to plan,” he continued, “because it might take a little bit of a different approach to teaching under the hybrid model. We don’t want to be in a position where we’re providing a less than quality product for our students virtually or at a hybrid model.”
Several teachers whose emails were read at the meeting underscored what Mendivil was referring to.
“The hybrid model has some benefits and some drawbacks as students and parents will have the choice to stay virtual or attend in a hybrid setting. Most, if not all, teachers will be asked to teach both in person and online on a daily basis. This will reduce our effectiveness and increase our workload as the planning doubles,” one teacher wrote.
A McClintock High teacher wrote, “I am concerned about my needs being adequately considered and met. Adjusting to a hybrid model requires me to change some major aspects of my teaching and I will need time to make those changes. I need time to set up my room. I need time to review procedures. I need time to make adjustments to curriculum. Is that being considered?”
The prospect of waiting for more favorable COVID-19 metrics to the point where hybrid learning doesn’t begin Oct. 13 raised an alarm for board member Sandy Lowe.
Noting the board last month unanimously passed a resolution stating hybrid learning would begin Oct. 13 – or earlier if metrics suggested it was safe to do so – Lowe said delaying until later in October would be disastrous.
“We’re not only going to lose trust of our parents but we’re going to lose the trust of our teachers,” Lowe said. “Our word is only as good as what we say. And so, to change now and say later in October … that to me is very unethical. You either agree with the health metrics or you don’t.”
Board members also expressed some skepticism after Maggie Fountain, the district’s teaching and learning specialist, detailed how hybrid learning would work once students are back in classrooms.
Fountain explained that from the teacher’s viewpoint, “You have to plan your lessons that you have touch points each day with your students that are both in person and online so that the online students are not completely disengaged from the instruction.”
Helm said, “We have amazing teachers, but wow, are we asking a lot of them trying to maneuver the technology…I don’t know how you race around to get all that done.”
Board President Berdetta Hodge said, “I just don’t see how they can do it all but we do have superhero teachers in our district, so I will give them credit.”
Hodge also asked if students in classrooms would be using their computers so they’re synched with those taking the same lesson online.
“I think we still have to do an online environment,” Fountain replied. “You don’t want to ask our teachers to be doing double planning. Getting two different lessons – that seems impossible to do,”
“Truthfully if it were me in the classroom, I would continue teaching much the same way I am now,” she continued, adding the in-class time also would be used “to give individualized attention to the students that come in on those days, building relationships or adding in something that enriches” their lessons.