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The new school year in Ahwatukee schools was further scrambled last week as Gov. Doug Ducey ordered campuses across the state to remain closed until at least Aug. 17.

While the governor is allowing online education to proceed, Kyrene will only do that with its new Kyrene Digital Academy and defer until Aug. 17 both its on-campus classes and its hybrid option that combines distance and in-classroom learning.

In Kyrene, so far about 20 percent of the district’s 13,000 students have been checked in for either the Kyrene Digital Academy, the all-online program, or the hybrid, district spokeswoman Erin Helm said. She said the deadline for parents to make a choice for the first quarter will be extended.

 Tempe Union deferred its new five-day in-class until Aug. 17 but will start its all-online learning program Aug. 3. 

Both Kyrene and Tempe Union are requiring that all students and staff on campus and on school buses to wear face masks. Tempe Union said class sizes will be kept to 12-15 students.

“All of us want for normalcy – normalcy for school, normalcy for everyday life,” Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil said at last’s week’s governing board meeting. 

“These are not permanent times,” he continued. “We have to remind ourselves of that in doing so gives us that much-needed sense of hope. With that sense of hope, together we can face these challenges.”

The board also approved spending a total $1 million on monitors, docking stations, headsets, and cameras for the district’s distance learning program. That includes $56,170 for equipment to extend its wireless network at all seven campuses to include parking lots and other areas for student internet access.

In documents submitted to the board, the Tempe Union administration said the new equipment will “ensure students in a virtual setting can see, hear and participate actively in the learning environment.”

“The cameras allow the teacher to move around the classroom actively supporting the learning of in-person students and supporting virtual students who benefit from class discussions and teacher responses to others’ questions in a synchronous environment,” board documents added. A “synchronous environment” means in-class and online students would be in the identical lesson at any given time.

Mendivil told the board the equipment will “provide a better experience something a bit more robust than what maybe our students received in the fourth quarter.”

The $1 million is in addition to a $2 million expenditure the board approved last month so that all incoming freshmen will have laptops. That program will continue indefinitely every year, with students keeping the laptops throughout high school and having the option to buy them when they graduate.

East Valley districts have taken different approaches to the governor’s directive. Chandler Unified, Mesa Public Schools and Gilbert Public Schools said their school year would begin as scheduled Aug. 5 with all students taking virtual instruction. Tempe Elementary deferred until Aug. 17 its three options for classes. 

There’s a reason why Tempe Union and other districts are shoring up their online lessons since some leaders last week expressed concern that students will show up for classes on Aug. 17 – and that anyone will be there to teach them – as the number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona continues to surge.

“A lot of parents are ready for their kids to go back,’’ said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. And he said teachers also are ready.

But Thomas said it’s not that simple in the days of COVID-19.

“We’re all starting to learn that there are people that we know who either they have it or their kids have it or a family member has it,’’ he said.

“So, there’s a lot of anxiety,’’ Thomas explained. “They want to be back. But they just don’t feel safe.’’ 

Even state schools chief Kathy Hoffman said there’s no guarantee that there will be children in classrooms on that date -- or that it will be safe to open schools on Aug. 17. Instead, she sees that date really as a point when education officials will evaluate conditions at that time.

“And there is a potential for that date to shift,’’ Hoffman said.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said it all may come down to how extensive COVID-19 infections remain in the state.

“We don’t know any better than anybody else what the numbers are going to look like,’’ he said. But the issue, said Kotterman, is even more basic than that.

“We do know that we have a lot of school staff who had expressed a lot of concern about coming back into the classroom when the numbers are so high,’’ he said.

Both Kotterman and Sergio Chavez, president of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association, said Aug. 17 was too early to open campuses if the current rate of COVID-19 cases is unchanged. 

“I understand that kids need to be socialized,” said Chavez, who said he won’t send his 15-year-old daughter to school Aug. 17. “Kids need to be with kids. But kids also need to be safe.” 

Kim Graham, executive director of the Arizona Education Foundation, said, “Everyone, I think, wants to be back in school but only when it’s safe to be back.”

Hoffman agreed, saying any final decisions will have to be based on whether parents are willing and ready to send their children back into classrooms. “We have seen and heard directly from families and also from teachers and school staff this growing sense of anxiety and fear about returning to the school setting,’’ she said.

Hoffman said some districts already have been sending out surveys to both parents and staffers to find out if they’re ready to be in a classroom setting.

“I think that’s going to continue to be a challenge,’’ she said. “It’s really hard to address those emotions because the COVID-19 virus is with us for now. We don’t know when we’re not going to be living under these circumstances.’’

Hoffman said a lot of this is linked to the announcements by the governor on the latest efforts to curb the spread of the virus, including promoting and enforcing social distancing.

“We can’t even have groups of more than 10 people at the pool,’’ Hoffman said. “How can we possibly open our schools safely where we know that we have classrooms of 20, 30 or more students and high schools with upwards of thousands of students and teachers all coming together.’’

Even the governor conceded that Aug. 17 start date is “aspirational.’’

Ducey’s original mid-March order got extended by another two weeks before he and Hoffman pulled the plug on the rest of the academic year, telling schools to do the best they can in remote and online education.

If nothing else, there seems to be an agreement that pushing the start date for the new year back at least two weeks – if not longer – makes sense.

“It has become clear over the past couple of weeks that it is just not safe for students and staff to congregate in-person at school facilities,’’ Hoffman said. “This was an unfortunate, but necessary decision to protect the healthy and safety of all Arizonans.’’

Thomas said it gives schools more time to consider options. And he said it may provide time to answer some questions about whether classrooms can be made healthy – or at least relatively risk free in an enclosed space.

“The Centers for Disease Control says you should be in a ventilated room,’’ Thomas said. And that, he said doesn’t mean simply having a vent in the room.

“They mean open the windows,’’ he said. “There’s not a school that can afford to open the windows in August.’’

And until educators can feel safe, Thomas said, they’re going to be reticent to return.

How many will stay away remains unclear. Thomas said he expects to release a survey of AEA members later this week.

Allowing online instruction to begin on whatever day school districts initially set for the school year to begin “does have the benefit of starting to get teachers paid when they would normally expect to get paid,’’ said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Potentially more significant, he said, is that starting “classes’’ as scheduled in early August eliminates the need for schools to either extend their academic year or eliminate mid-year breaks to get the required 180 days of education necessary to qualify for full state aid.

But that online start raises other issues, starting with the fact that some students lack access to computers as well as high-speed speed internet connections to actually participate.

“That was not something we could solve over the last several weeks or months,’’ Hoffman said. But doing nothing, she said, is not an option. “Our kids need to keep learning,’’ she said. “We can’t just stop the school year and push it back and push it back. We need teachers teaching and students learning.’’

The state doesn’t provide as much aid per student for those who are in either fully online or “hybrid’’ programs, the latter being a combination of in-class and remote learning. That leaves the question of whether this early online-learning start will leave schools with less cash than they were anticipating to cover expenses, including teacher salaries.

Kotterman said there is a presumption that if schools start online only and get less state aid, the missing cash eventually will be made up. “But we still don’t have guidelines from the governor’s office and the Department of Education on exactly how that process would work and the timelines for that,’’ he said.

 

Howard Fischer of Capital Media Services, Cronkite News and AFN Editor Paul Maryniak contributed to this story.

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