School, bag, backpack.

The continuing uncertainty surrounding reopening classrooms and returning students to a normal school life prompted Tempe Union High School District Governing Board members to vent their frustration during their meeting last week.

At least one member criticized the governor’s leadership and others expressed frustration over some parents blaming the board and teachers closed campuses.

“We haven’t had any support from the governor, any direction, any leadership when it came to shutting down the schools,” said board member Andres Barraza, harkening back to the initial closure of campuses last March and then focusing on the present.

“The last three months have really been frustrating for all of us – the board members, parents teachers,” Barraza continued. “There’s no clarity on what we’re supposed to do.”

Barraza said that in formally delaying a reopening of campuses until Oct. 13 – unless virus case data suggests an earlier reopening is possible – Tempe Union was providing the clarity absent in the governor’s guidance.

Board member Sandy Lowe expressed concern about the impact of an extended campus closure on students but said she and her colleagues are trying to do the best in a difficult situation.

“I think it’s important for the community to understand that we want our kids back in school as soon as possible, especially because of mental health. I’m most concerned about mental health and my second major concern is kids that are falling behind,” Lowe said. “We’re going to have them than we normally do. I think some kids will catch up quicker, but some kids won’t. We’re going to have to really assertive as far as catching these kids up as quick as possible.”

More than one member and Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil also suggested that some parents are frustrated by the fact that the board has only held virtual online meetings since March and that it makes it difficult for them to feel as if they are being heard.

Lowe referred to initial reaction by some parents who had heard a rumor that in-class learning would not be resuming until October, saying some “felt like they were losing the battle because Oct. 1 is a long way away from the first day of school.”

“It’s unfortunate today that our parents and teachers cannot be in the board room with us,” Lowe said. “I think that really does isolate our community and in some ways, it makes them feel like they’re not part of the solution. I feel very bad for the parents.”

 Mendivil said he too was frustrated by the fact that the board has not been able to hold in-person meetings, saying “I am so tired of these virtual meetings.”

“Right now, we are restricted in the way we can conduct these meetings,” he said, adding he missed seeing citizens in the room – even if they disagreed with him.

Some parents apparently also accused the board of predetermining an October reopening without public discussion, though Barraza and Vice President Brian Garcia noted that they would have been forbidden from holding such discussions by the state’s open meeting law.

Board member Michelle Helm suggested that the district conduct some kind of town hall in which parents could express their feelings about reopening. 

“I’ve heard parents say, ‘I’d like to be heard,’” Helm said. “I do think people want to stand somewhere and say, ‘This is my feeling.’”

She added, “Basically, I’m very proud of our school district…. I think we’re doing a great job. We’re doing what we can do in the heart of some of the most difficult times any of us have ever seen.”

Board President Berdetta Hodge said, “These are troubling times.”

“If anyone believe we make these decisions lightly, they don’t understand how hard it is for us,” Hodge said. “I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about the decisions we have to make.”

She thanked parents for advocating for their children.

“We’re elected to give the students what they need. Sometimes the ‘need’ and the ‘want’ is not always the same,” Hodge said, addressing parents. “I understand that you want your students in school five days a week. I understand that you want your kids to have a regular school day. We do too, but the ‘need’ may not be there at this time for us to do that. So, we have to make those hard decisions in that when it comes to need.”

She noted that the board also has to consider the safety of more than just students, including teachers and even bus drivers.

Hodge said some emails to the district said teachers who don’t want to come to campuses can just quit, and called those remarks “hurtful” and “unfair to our teachers who put themselves on the line every day.”

“Someone told us in an email that we were taking the easy route,” she added. “The easy route for us would be to put our kids in class five days a week and not care. …All five of us have taken a lot of time and a lot of effort to make these decisions.”

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