Kyrene School District

Parents whose kids have been in online learning and staff  in that environment have greater doubts about the district’s safety measures.

Kyrene administrators last week told the Governing Board classrooms will reopen March 16, though they held out a slim possibility that kids might be back at their desks a bit earlier.

In a lengthy presentation Feb. 9, Superintendent Dr. Laura Toenjes and several top aides laid out the district’s game plan for reopening classrooms that were closed after Thanksgiving.

The presentation also included results from a survey of staff and parents on reopening that illustrated a continuing divide between staff and parents who want classrooms open and those who fear for their safety regardless of vaccinations and safety measures.

And it included a look at how the district is preparing to address learning gaps resulting from online learning. Unlike learning gap presentations in Tempe Union and other districts, however, they provided no data on failure rates. 

Administrators said teachers will be trained to zero in on specific areas of learning deficiencies rather than reteach everything that had been covered in class and that the main focus will be on “major standards or skills.”

Tempe Union earlier this month set a tentative reopening of its campuses for March 15. 

Although the Tempe Union board and administration appeared to favor four days in classrooms with a fifth day of online learning for all students, the issue was not resolved at the board’s Feb. 3 meeting.

The agenda for the Tempe Union Governing Board’s meeting at 5:45 p.m. today, Feb. 17, does not list any discussion of reopening. 

The position taken by both Kyrene and Tempe Union officials on reopening classrooms differs markedly from that of the East Valley’s largest districts, which have had kids in classrooms for a month.

Virus spread metrics in those districts – Mesa Public Schools, Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified – have been higher than those in Tempe Union and Kyrene. 

Toenjes said that Kyrene will be prepared to reopen classrooms earlier than March 16 if all three metrics released by the county health department every Thursday morning have dropped from the substantial to moderate level.

Metrics released by the county two days after the Kyrene board meeting showed that one metric – percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms – had fallen to that moderate level.

The two other metrics also had trended downward but remained in the substantial spread category. COVID-19 cases per 100,000 fell from 452 to 300 and the percentage of new positive test results dipped from 14.6 to 11.6 percent. Tempe Union’s metrics closely followed those in Kyrene.

Spring break in both Kyrene and Tempe Union begins in two and a half weeks.

So, under Kyrene’s reopening plan, all three metrics would have to be in the moderate spread level when the county releases its latest data tomorrow, Feb. 18, and on the following Thursday if its classrooms are to reopen before March 16.

Kyrene administrators also said those metrics are not the only factor the district is taking into account in making a reopening decision.

“We also consult directly with county doctors who have stressed that the metrics are just one factor to consider,” said Carrie Furedy, district executive director of school effectiveness.

“We know that infectious disease is only one factor that impacts the overall health of a child, family and community,” she said. “The learning, emotional support and socialization that occurs in schools also weighs strongly in the equation. 

“We also know that the level of community transmission does not always reflect transmission within schools. When strong mitigation controls are in place and the school community supports those strategies, schools can be a safe haven for both students and staff even when COVID-19 is spreading outside of school.”

Furedy said vaccinations comprise “a significant new factor to consider in our decision-making to a safe return even if health metrics do not change as rapidly as we hope.”

There was no information provided on how many teachers and other staff had received shots.

Furedy noted that those who got them in the second half of January should be getting their second dose the last weekend in February.

Furedy stated that because “the vaccine reaches its maximum efficacy one to two weeks after the second dose, this is a critical factor to consider in any timeline for a safe return to in-person learning.”

Asked what other factors will figure in reopening, Furedy replied, that the “scientific guidance that comes from the” Centers for Disease Control is one.

Ironically, the CDC three days later released a lengthy report that stated, “K–12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do so safely.”

The agency also said, “In-person learning for elementary schools is likely to have less risk of in-school transmission than for middle schools and high schools.” 

But the CDC said paramount to ensuring safety in schools were mandatory masks and that “physical distancing (at least 6 feet) should be maximized to the greatest extent possible.” 

Board member Michelle Fahy noted that social distancing “is not going to be a mitigation strategy we’re able to deploy at this time,” but had noted “there are other strategies we can use to support groups.”

 She was referring to the fact that classrooms aren’t large enough to accommodate the number of students who will be in them by spacing them 6 feet apart.

Furedy said other factors Kyrene will consider include guidance from Maricopa County and Arizona health officials and “our operational capacity – things such as staffing levels and our ability to ensure that classrooms have qualified teachers and appropriate coverage – as well as the learning and social emotional needs of our students.” 

Fahy indirectly referred to the issue of staffing levels when she noted that the second dose of the vaccine has been known to have strong after-effects and that this could have an impact on whether a teacher or other staffer is able to work the day after that second shot. That in turned would affect any school’s ability to have sufficient coverage of all classrooms.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Susie Ost-meyer also provided results from a survey of parents, teachers and other district staff between Jan. 26 and Feb. 3 that drew 6,782 responses – including 1,182 staffers, about two thirds of whom work in classrooms.

Parents who responded included 1,558 whose children are learning at home and 3,463 whose kids had been in classrooms prior to the district-wide shut-down. 

One survey question sought the respondents’ comfort level with returning to classrooms if staff had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. Staff and parents who had been in classrooms overwhelmingly favored a return while only about a third of those in the Kyrene Digital Academy or the flex model were comfortable.

While board members applauded the administration’s presentation and overall plan to return to classrooms, that wasn’t the case among the 48 parents and staff that wrote statements to the board.

The majority of parents who emailed the board pleaded for open classrooms immediately and criticized the administration and board for keeping them closed.

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