Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey said at a press conference last week that despite pressure by the Trump Administration to reopen campuses, he was not going to let politics affect his decision on when Arizona schools can begin offering in-classroom learning.

More than 80 members of school boards across Arizona – including two from Tempe Union and two from Kyrene – have called on state officials to delay opening campuses until at least Oct. 1.

Tempe Union Governing Board President Berdetta Hodge and her colleague Brian Garcia, as well as Kyrene board Vice President Kevin Walsh and his colleague Michelle Fahy, are among those who have signed a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent of Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the State Legislature.

“Positive cases in Arizona are trending upward, not downward,” the letter states. “We cannot reopen our schools for on-site learning until we experience a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period. 

“We want to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, not contribute to higher and higher numbers of outbreaks and deaths in our communities.”

 The letter, which does not represent official school board positions but rather concerns of the individual board members, makes a series of other requests beyond keeping campuses closed until Oct. 1.

Ducey has delayed the opening of campuses until Aug. 17 – a date he reiterated last week as “aspirational” rather than set in stone.

Tempe Union is beginning online instruction for all students Aug. 3.

Kyrene is starting online classes Aug. 17 for those who are signed up for either classroom or hybrid learning while kids enrolled in the Digital Academy, a fulltime online program developed by the district, begins July 30. 

Horizon Honors postponed all learning until Aug. 17.

The letter from board members to state officials also asks the state officials to set a COVID-19 case data point for districts to use in determining when to reopen campuses as well as establish uniform safety protocols.

It also seeks equal per-pupil funding for both online and in-class students; a waiver of the 180-day instruction requirement; suspension of standardized state assessment tests for the school year with allowance for districts to use their own student-performance measurements; and permission to distribute breakfasts and lunches even when campuses are closed. 

“We need real goals and plans so we can focus on instructional, facility and transportation planning,” the letter states, adding:

 “Let administrators and teachers plan for and excel at teaching the first quarter remotely. If there is a reduction of risk and infection in our communities, this natural break in our academic calendar will be an ideal time to consider returning to in-person learning.”

In their request for suspending state achievement tests, the board members wrote:

“We ask that our focus this academic year be offering high-quality remote-learning and a measured return to safe in-person classes, rather than on reaching higher levels of academic success as measured by a single assessment. 

“Remote learning is the only guarantee we have for the safety of our students and staff during the rising COVID-19 outbreak in our state. The latest executive order, as presented, penalizes school districts for offering only remote learning, as it requires districts to offer a physical attendance option for five days a week to receive 100 percent funding for remote on-line instruction through the order’s budget stabilization process.”

It said there is not study that “indicates that the number of infections will have decreased by any certain day on the calendar, and administrators, teachers, and families across the state are very nervous about returning to our school buildings and classrooms.”

“While we appreciate the decision to require five days of on-site learning is to assure families have a place to send their children so they can continue to earn an income and financially contribute to our economy, this decision is inequitable and greatly impacts our poorest communities the most,” the board members wrote.

The letter climaxed a week in which President Trump, members of his cabinet and other leading Republicans demanded that schools reopen for in-class learning when their school year officially begins.

U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, led a group of Republican lawmakers Thursday who demanded that schools reopen as usual in the fall, stating, “It would be more harmful to keep children locked out of schools and less harmful and less risky for children to go back to schools.”

During a press conference July 9 in which he acknowledged that COVID-19 cases were exploding in Arizona, Ducey said he won’t play politics in deciding when campuses can reopen.

On the same day of his press conference, Scottsdale Unified became the first district in Arizona to announce it won’t reopen their schools before Sept. 8.

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also said on July 9 that while she wants to get students back in the classroom, “we cannot ignore the severity of COVID-19 in our state and how that impacts adults and children alike in our school communities.”

Hoffman tweeted Tuesday, when the White House hosted a daylong panel on reopening schools, that the safety of whole communities could be at stake – not just students and teachers.

“Those valued members of our schools need more assurances that schools and communities have the resources they need to stop the virus from spreading widely throughout their community,” her tweet said. “I cannot provide those assurances to the adults and students who are medically vulnerable in our school community at this time.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines aimed at helping school systems determine how best to reopen schools this fall. But those guidelines – which include social distancing, sanitizing, wearing masks and more – were attacked by Trump and his supporters as too strict.

Trump tweeted last week that the CDC should reconsider its guidelines, which he called “very tough & expensive.”

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield hedged Thursday during an appearance on ABC News’ “Good Morning America” when asked whether the guidelines would be revised.

While Redfield said the CDC will continue to offer schools “additional reference documents,” those are “not a revision of the guidelines.” He said the agency would put forward a “spectrum of strategies” and focus on helping schools implement the guidelines.

Speakers at the event organized by the House Freedom Caucus, which Biggs chairs, called the CDC guidelines “ridiculous” and “extremely harmful” for students’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

They repeatedly noted that being kept out of school is bad for children’s emotional health and that COVID-19 is neither dangerous to children nor easily spread by them.

“This is not a risky problem or health situation for the younger generation,” said Dr. Simone Gold, an emergency medical specialist from Los Angeles at the press conference.

Meanwhile, Snowflake Republican Sylvia Allen, who chairs the State Senate Education Committee, told Cronkite News she doubts Ducey has the power to delay the reopening of campuses.

She said Arizona should not be governed through executive orders, noting that “the legislative branch makes policy and budget allocations, not the executive branch.”

“It is time to stop, call a special session, and get back to the constitutional operations of our state,” Allen said.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, a teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, doubts that a special legislative session is feasible and she worries how many legislators would actually show up because of COVID-19 concerns and obligations to family members who may be sick or at risk.

“Calling a special session would end up with a bunch of people running in different directions, which is not going to help,” Udall said. “I don’t think we have enough consensus to get anything done.”

Despite such reservations, Udall said, she “would love” to hold a special session to address education issues in the state – under different circumstances.

However, she and Allen both support giving schools the authority to delay the start of in-person classes. 

Allen said she recently worked on her own legislation that would have provided, among other items, “local control and flexibility for schools opening and determination of health protocols.”

The governor’s delay of the school year was part of his June 29 executive order that also shut down the state’s bars, gyms, water parks, movie theaters and river tubing for 30 days.

This came after Ducey, in an order June 24, distributed $270 million to help schools reopen safely this fall, including money to protect districts against budget shortfalls, improve distance learning and expand broadband in rural communities.

Regardless of who sets state policy, whether the governor or the Legislature, any changes will affect school districts, said Erin Hart, the chief operation officer for the education advocacy group Expect More Arizona. 

Each piece of new information that makes it to schools is a “sigh of relief” for administrators, who then can shift attention elsewhere.

“They can focus on other parts of their plans that they are still developing,” Hart said.

Hoffman last week pointed to students with medical conditions and many others in schools – “instructional aides, librarians, bus drivers, nutrition workers and more” – who could be put at risk.

Arizona Parent Teacher Association President Sergio Chavez said he does not “agree with sending children back to school without having actual control” over the disease, which he noted is surging in Arizona.

Trump on Thursday blamed school officials’ reluctance to reopen on partisan politics.

“We have to get our schools open and stop this political nonsense,” Trump said during a Rose Garden ceremony to sign an executive order on Hispanic prosperity. “And it’s only political nonsense, it’s politics. They don’t want to open because they think it will help them on November 3rd.”

But Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations at Arizona School Boards Association, said politics has nothing to do with it.

“It’s way easier when schools are open but we have a responsibility to keep our students and teachers safe,” Kotterman said. “Schools already don’t have a lot of teachers, so if teachers don’t feel safe and happy, then the school is not functioning well.”

A survey by the Arizona Education Association released last week found an overwhelming number of educators believe schools should only reopen when it is deemed safe to do so. 

Of 7,651 educators surveyed by the association, 68 percent opposed returning to classrooms at this point.

The survey also showed 60 percent of the respondents believed their districts were not prepared to reopen schools.

More than 90 percent of the respondents also expressed concerns about themselves, colleagues and even students contracting COVID-19.

As far as what social distancing measures districts should enact, smaller class sizes were the most popular, with 96 percent in favor.

But most respondents believed there aren’t enough teachers to achieve social distancing in classrooms or even employees to provide food service and adequate cleaning of facilities.

In a related move, Expect More Arizona released the second part of a May survey of 11,000 teachers on their observations and experiences related on online learning that districts began when schools were shut down for the fourth quarter of the last school year.

According to the survey, 41 percent of teachers felt they were “somewhat” prepared for the transition to an online setting last spring while 35 percent of teachers felt they were not prepared at all. 

Only 14 percent of teachers felt three-quarters or more of their students were fully engaged in online work. 

“Teachers shared that parent and family involvement, internet and device accessibility, work not counting toward final grades per a statewide policy, student motivation, and constant contact from teachers all played a role in whether or not students were engaged,” Expect More Arizona said in a release.

Of the survey respondents, it said 69 percent reported that students had an adult or sibling at home to help them with online schoolwork. 

The survey also showed 39 percent of teachers felt that few special education students had their educational needs met during online learning.

(1) comment

Elizabeth Ingram

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