Tempe Union IT specialist Christopher Hurt

Tempe Union IT specialist Christopher Hurt helps students get laptops that the district loaned to students without one.

With the mandated closure of Arizona schools extended to at least April 10, administrators for Ahwatukee schools were ramping up distance learning for thousands of students this week.

It is no easy task as they confront a myriad of issues created by the widening pandemic, which struck an unidentified relative of an Ahwatukee Little League player.

Among those issues are providing lessons that approximate their classroom curricula, training teachers to deliver them, helping kids from households that can’t afford a laptop or internet services, addressing the specialized services mandated for special-needs students, feeding teens and children who depend on free and reduced-price lunches and grappling with mandated days of instruction and whether noncertified personnel such as custodians and food service workers can be paid what they would have earned for the school year even if it’s shortened.

To a large degree, Tempe Union and Kyrene need the state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education for guidance, answers and directives on some questions.

“Not everything is in our control,” Kyrene Governing Board member Kevin Walsh said at last week’s board meeting. “We don’t know whether the governor and the State Legislature will pass emergency legislation changing requirements about instructional minutes, the length of the school year, state testing, school funding. We don’t have authority to continue to pay the personnel of our outside vendors who are essential to our schools, but were not Kyrene employees.”

There were other more personal issues as well for some students.

For example, Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe high school seniors face the likelihood that proms will be cancelled – although Tempe Union has made no decision – and concerns that May graduation ceremonies will be scrapped.

Although neither most school districts nor Arizona’s three state universities have made decisions about graduation ceremonies, some out-of-state universities and colleges already announced plans for “virtual commencements” online.

While the continuation of education for local students is a major issue in the spiraling virus crisis in Ahwatukee, it isn’t the only one.

Signature events like the Easter Parade were wiped off the calendar, a myriad of routine adult activities are suspended and small businesses’ life-or-death struggle continued gaining more urgency. Amid all this, the Ahwatukee Little League announced that an unidentified individual related to a player tested positive for COVID-19 and had last been at Mountain Vista Park March 3.

The governor’s order Thursday restricting restaurant and bar service to only pickup or delivery sent Ahwatukee eateries and their employees reeling as some establishments – like Biscuits and Zzeeks Pizza & Wings – continued operating under the restricted conditions, others closed their doors and many left no indication online as to whether they were still trying to make a go of it. The governor also ordered all gyms closed indefinitely.

Churches canceled Sunday services and all other activities, though the Parish of St. Benedict maintained confessions – advising parishioners to wait in their car and exit only when they saw someone leaving the campus annex.

The Ahwatukee Foothills Family YMCA, like all YMCAs in Maricopa County, was closed. Some branches, though not the Ahwatukee facility, planned to provide emergency daycare through April 3.

However, the Y Outreach for Ahwatukee Seniors Program, which provides rides and handyman services for local senior citizens, was still operating.

“Y OPAS is still taking care of Ahwatukee seniors,” said program director Mark Mansir.  “We have fewer appointments as people isolate but still covering plenty. We also are doing more shopping for some seniors in need.  My volunteers are absolutely the best.”

He said people who want to volunteer should call 602-212-6088 and leave a message, or email OPAS@vosymca.org to fill out an application and undergo a background check.

But the annual book sale to help fund Y OPAS. shceduled this weekend, was indefinitely canceled – as were all Ahwatukee Chamber of Commerce meetings, events and ribbon cuttings because of directives urging no gatherings of more than 10 people.

With an estimated 4,000 blood drives across the country canceled despite doctors’ assurances that blood can be safely needed, Matt and Kami Troutman were keeping their fingers crossed that donors would still show for their semi-annual drive at Desert Foothills United Methodist Church 8 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Saturday, March 28. More information can be obtained by emailing troutman.Kami@gmail.com or calling 480-246-6332.

Tempe Union and Kyrene extended their  distribution of cold breakfast and lunch packages for anyone under 18 to coincide with the extended school closures.

Tempe Union, which is distributing those packages 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday-Friday at Mountain Point High School and three Tempe campuses, requires students to accompany parents to the sites.

Kyrene has no requirement for a student to be present and maintained its Monday-Friday food distribution program 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at the Kyrene Family Resource Center, 1330 E. Dava Drive, Tempe; and 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. at Kyrene de las Lomas, 11820 S. Warner-Elliot Loop, Ahwatukee, as well as four other sites.

While Horizon Honors had no need to offer free meals, staffers made wellness calls to parents of all its approximate 1,600 students “to see how they are doing and if they have any questions or concerns,” spokeswoman Melissa Hartley said. “We are focused on the wellness of our students, in addition to their learning needs.”

Like Horizon Honors, Kyrene and Tempe Union administrators also were focusing on distance learning – and equipping those students who didn’t have the capability of getting it.

The districts were directing families without internet service to both Cox, which is providing free service until May 15, and Century Link, which cut its price.

Tempe Union started loaning laptops to students who need them and Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm said her district was working on a similar plan.

Kyrene was scheduled to launch this week a “mid-range plan” for distance learning after relying on general resources for students that did not involve grading or homework.

Kyrene said lesson plans “related directly to course and grade-level standards” would be posted online, but they, too, would not involve grading or homework.

Stating that while teachers “will receive remote training during this time for using various platforms for distance learning,” Kyrene said that its long-range plan, should classes be suspended beyond April 13, would involve “formal distance learning options” that did did not necessarily mean digital learning.

“Instruction may be provided in print format or take the form of independent study, rather than lecture,” the district said, adding it intends to “ensure all students are able to receive instruction, regardless of their access to technology” and that it aims to “build a support system for educators to help them meet expectations for remote instruction.”

“We know some families are anxious for formal instruction to begin immediately, but we have a greater chance of success if we take the time to plan,” Kyrene noted.

Helm said, “Our team is utilizing our current curriculum and pacing guides which are aligned to the state standards and have built lessons which will connect and continue student learning for each grade level.”

Asked what would happen with grade promotions if classroom instruction is cancelled for the rest of the year, Helm said, “With plans for continued instruction in place, via distance learning, COVID-19 will not have any impact on student promotions to the next school year. As always, student promotion is based on grade level performance throughout the year. COVID-19 will not be a factor.”

Training teachers to adapt to distance learning was also a big issue for Tempe Union, where Kim Hilgers, assistant superintendent for teaching & learning, and Dr. Stephanie Frimer, director of Career & Technical Education, were leading the charge.

A “learning management system” different from face-to-face instruction “it requires a different set of skills,” Hilgers said. 

“We’ve got some teachers who have used our learning management system extensively and we have other teachers who this is new too,” she said. “So, we’ve got a structure with different training scenarios for the different needs for our teachers.”

Part and parcel of Tempe Union’s effort also involves training teachers to help students adjust to working at home.”

 “It’s the same class, but where they work is very different,” Hilgers said, adding that the district has to address issues such as “are there different instructional strategies that we need to be teaching our teachers so that they can incorporate into their online teaching and learning.”

She explained, “One of the unique challenges we have is how to accommodate the different content areas because the actual curriculum delivered would be very different. And so, we’re actually looking at working with teacher groups to develop the curriculum throughout the rest of it to cover the eight weeks through the rest of the year so that it can be specifically focused on that content area.”

Under Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil’s direction, Hilgers and Frimer said they also have to work with the district’s IT department “because we might need to set up a troubleshooting guide should teachers or parents or students run into a problem or whatever in the online learning.”

“Frankly, all the departments in the district have spent a lot of time really looking at what are the short-term issues and long-term issues,” Hilgers said.

At Horizon Honors, Hartley said distance learning began Monday for all students K-12.

“The school leadership teams and teachers worked all last week to get it up and running,” Hartley said. “Students in grades K-2 will use Seesaw and Zoom, students in grades 3-12 will utilize Google classroom, several other products in the Google suite and Zoom. The curriculum for distance learning will continue to move students forward through their 4th quarter academic goals.”

Because both Horizon Elementary and Horizon Secondary already utilize the Google suite, teacher training focused on the Zoom and Seesaw platforms for the youngest grades.

“We surveyed all families last week about technology needs,” Hartley said. “We had no families that said they had an issue with internet access. Those with device needs were identified and were allowed to pick up by appointment so no lines formed.

“As additional materials are needed – novels, for example –all items will be bagged/pre-packaged by staff members wearing gloves, etc. and then we will offer drive-up service in our parking lot.”

 Teachers throughout Ahwatukee schools had little time to redesign instruction s the prospect of a prolonged period of school closings loomed last week.

Horizon Honors Executive Director Betsy Fera told parents that her teachers “worked tirelessly from both their homes and the campus” and that “the creative and consistent ways they will be connecting and supporting our students sets a standard for other schools to follow.” 

The mammoth challenges that closures and the other problems created by the virus for Kyrene and Tempe Union were mirrored in districts throughout the East Valley and beyond and some districts’ governing boards, such as Mesa, were drafting a series of recommendations for the governor and the state Board of Education. 

Among them is a concern shared by Kyrene and Tempe Union officials: Ensuring that their non-teaching staffers can continue getting a paycheck if the mandatory hours of instruction for the school year are cut by the state. 

Mesa, the state’s largest school district, said cutting those employees’ pay would devastate hundreds of families and ultimately further harm local communities’ economy. 

Besides suffering through a disruption in their classroom time, students at all Ahwatukee schools also lost out on activities and planned trips. One Kyrene school had to cancel a trip to Disneyworld, but softening the blow was the fact that the amusement park itself shut down. 

And some school officials expressed concerned about the impact of the virus crisis on children’s and teen’s emotional and mental health. 

“This is incredibly stressful,” said Kyrene board member Michelle Fahy, ““Just trying to teach a young child what this scary thing is when your mom is walking around, cleaning everything in sight and not letting you play with neighborhood kids and just being tremendously cautious - it’s scary.”

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