Kyrene School District will start a “rolling return” to classrooms over a three-week period beginning Sept. 17 as favorable downward trends continue in the county’s three COVID-19 metrics that districts are following to determine when and by how much to reopen campuses.
Tempe Union remained in full online-learning mode, although the agenda for the 6 p.m. Governing Board meeting today, Sept. 2, indicates the administration that the current school year will be discussed.
In an announcement to parents on Monday, Kyrene said children in kindergarten through second grade will be allowed back into classrooms Sept. 17, followed on a Sept. 24 reopening for students in third-fifth grades. Middle Schools will reopen Oct. 13. All students will still have the option to continue at-home learning, but if their parents opt for that, they’ll have to continue so-called flex learning through the second quarter.
“Bringing students back in stages will allow Kyrene to monitor the implementation of mitigation strategies, making adjustments as needed with smaller groups, while gradually increasing the population of students on campus,” the district said. “The goal of this careful approach is long-term success, in the hopes that schools will be able to remain open for in-person instruction.”
Noting that this reopening approach has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention following Denmark’s successful return to classroom learning, Kyrene noted that children in lower grades “require significant adult support.”
“The amount of screen time involved in distance learning is not developmentally appropriate for younger age groups,” the district continued. “While some students in primary grades have adapted well to distance learning, a large number of early learners will benefit from a return to in-person instruction.”
Moreover, a staggered approach to campus re-entry gives school officials a chance to “re-align campus logistics” such as arrivals, lunches and dismissals “and will give students opportunities to participate in orientations and other back-to-school practices.
“This approach will also provide additional time for students to adjust to new school systems and protocols. If our youngest leaders can adhere to safety rituals, there is a greater chance of long-term success for in-person learning,” Kyrene’s announcement stated.
Those protocols will include mandatory face coverings, frequent hand-washing and social distancing, with kids largely kept in the same classroom and on the playground without mingling with children from other classrooms or grades.
Kyrene’s announcement came four days after the Maricopa County Public Health Department’s latest weekly 4 p.m. Thursday update of virus spread.
That new data – which is 12 days old when posted on the department’s website at Maricopa.gov/5599/school-metrics – showed that both Kyrene and Tempe Union could begin considering moderate reopening.
Two of the three benchmarks for both districts showed virus spread had dipped to a “minimal,” or green, level warranting full reopening of campuses to any student five days a week.
Those two benchmarks are the percentage of new COVID-19 tests that come back positive and the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms.
Because both districts remained in a moderate or yellow category for number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, the county gave an overall moderate-level rating for the two districts.
Tempe Union’s board met the day before the latest metrics were released.
“We don’t really have a date,” Tempe Union Superintendent Kevin Mendivil told the board Aug. 26 as he and his executive team rolled out an extensive “mitigation plan” the governor requires to show the community what measures the district will be taking to blunt virus spread not only in schools but the community at large.
“We’ve been thinking maybe sometime later in September,” he continued, “but we really don’t know. We need to have a bit more data points from which to reference.”
A day earlier, Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely and her executive team rolled out its mitigation plan and both districts have an intricately detailed approach toward reducing the threat of infection and handling any outbreaks of the coronavirus that might occur.
Indeed, Vesely told her board how its approach to outbreaks got an early try-out Aug. 19 when a Milenio Elementary student tested positive for the virus– resulting in the student’s classmates having to stay at home for 14 days.
“We followed the protocols and consultation with the Maricopa County Health Department and those affected are safely under quarantine,” Vesely said.
Mesa Public Schools was satisfied with data somewhat less favorable than in Kyrene and Tempe Union to set Sept. 14 for the return of students two days a week. Gilbert Public Schools has targeted Sept. 8 for partial reopening, although the board is meeting this week to possibly open classrooms five days a week. Higley Unified, with benchmark readings similar to those in Kyrene and Tempe Union, set Sept. 8 for a full five-day return to classrooms.
All districts are leaving options for at-home instruction for students whose parents are leery of sending their children to class. And all districts say their decisions depend on continuing favorable trends in the virus data.
But even interpreting the data isn’t easy.
On the same day the county released the latest metrics, the state Health Services Department said its interpretation of data statewide indicated that partial in-classroom learning was warranted in only four counties in Arizona. Maricopa County is not among them.
Neither Maricopa County’s benchmarks nor the state’s interpretation of virus data are mandatory.
“What we heard from our stakeholder conversations over the summer from school leaders is they wanted to have flexibility to work with their communities,’’ said Education Department spokesman Ritchie Taylor, citing a belief that the state should defer to the extent possible to the locally elected school board members.
Tempe Union laid out four scenarios for partial reopening, with classrooms open one, two or four days a week, depending on the county’s COVID-19 metrics. In all those scenarios, Wednesday would find all students learning at home so the district can deep-clean schools.
With the one- and two-day schedules, Tempe Union students would be divided, possibly alphabetically by the first letter of their last name, to keep on-campus populations at a level where social distancing can be better managed.
But even as Tempe Union laid out its plan, other challenges emerged in public that illustrated how the pandemic has seeped into virtually every corner of school life.
Tempe Union board member Sandy Lowe raised the issue of ventilation – a challenge in school buildings, which have few windows.
Available scientific data has indicated that fresh air helps dispel the presence of coronavirus, which is spread by respiratory droplets.
“We’re working with our HVAC systems and we’re ensuring that we’re cleaning the filters more often than normal,” Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald told Lowe. “There’s a component that allows us to bring in more fresh air. …When you’re talking about HVAC systems, especially during the summer, we’re actually pulling in the maximum 20 percent fresh air into our system, So we’re changing that out quite frequently. So, we’re starting with that and then we’re assessing all of the ventilation systems currently.”
On the agenda for the Tempe Union Governing Board meeting tonight is a $100,000 expenditure for HVAC maintenance and repair on an “as-needed basis.”
Tempe Union “has numerous boilers, chillers, cooling towers and HVAC equipment that require annual preventive and predictive maintenance and repair services,” the agenda item notes.
Kyrene Governing Board last week approved buying individual portable HEPA filtration systems for all classrooms, health offices and other areas sections of schools and other district facilities.
“The new HEPA filters will be funded with bond dollars, thanks to Kyrene voters who continually support our schools,” the district said. “The HEPA units will quietly filter the classroom air every 35 minutes, capturing 99.97 percent of particles.”
During Tempe Union’s board meeting, member Michelle Helm said the typical classroom layout was fine for social distancing, but wanted to know how students would be kept sufficiently apart in tighter spaces, like locker rooms and classrooms for band, choral and drama.
McDonald noted that while many of those rooms are bigger than normal classrooms and that the number of students would be lower than normal. “We may be looking at 7 or nine students in the classroom at a time,” he said.
Only certain lockers would be available to students on different days to keep students sufficiently apart from each other.