COVID-19 cloud hangs over the next school year The Chandler Arizonan

COVID-19 cloud hangs over the next school year

COVID-19 cloud hangs over the next school year
City News

Arizonan Executive Editor

Perhaps the most significant announcement Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will ever make was expected this weekend as she rolls out guidelines for reopening schools this August.

But those guidelines, which Hoffman promised by May 30 – after the Arizonan’s deadline – are only the beginning for districts as they peer into a murky future that’s only about eight weeks away.

Reopening is not something that district officials are just starting to think about now that report cards have been completed and virtual graduations concluded.

Chandler Unified Superintendent Camille Casteel  said the district is planning for the prospect that some students won’t be ready to return to school in July and may wish to continue learning virtually from home.

There are other needs CUSD is trying to prepare for in a short amount of time, Casteel said.

“We’re like flying the plane and building it at the same time,” she said.

CUSD spokesman Terry Locke said the task force – which will give the Governing Board a report June 10 – is planning for “a number of possibilities for the 2020-2021 school year, ranging from reopening of schools with increased safety and sanitation measures, a hybrid of online and classroom instruction, continuing distance learning and finally a plan for if we reopen and then need to close if conditions require.”

East Valley districts are following pretty much the same approach.

“I can tell you that this weighs heavy in our life and we talk about this every single day,” Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely said.

President Trump has said schools should reopen. Gov. Doug Ducey last week said schools will reopen on time and that “parents and teachers and superintendents must be prepared” for their reopening. But that is easier said than done as administrators see a myriad of complex – and expensive – issues that will impact parents, students, teachers and themselves.

The guidelines Hoffman is to release  will be just that – guidelines.

During a meeting last Tuesday between some superintendents and Ducey and Hoffman, the governor “was very, very clear to say that Arizona has guidelines and the state superintendent says that we will have guidelines. Those are not mandates,” Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis told her governing board.

“I was sitting next to the superintendent the Navajo Nation. He has a very different problem to solve than we do, so the statewide plan has to be nimble,” said Fourlis, one of 89 school officials from across the state who weighed in on Hoffmann’s guidelines..

The issues are staggering in their complexity and breadth.

They affect how students will get to and from school, how they will sit and move around inside them, how they will eat and play. Field trips and extracurriculars activities – from sports to choral to band – also await scrutiny.

Officials also must assess what Fourlis called in a recent public discussion “learning loss” among students over the last three months of distance learning as well as the continuing “digital divide” between students with internet access and those without.

Even the impact of closures on students’ mental health is an issue, given the prolonged alarm over the virus and their long separation from classmates and campus life.

Although the Trump Administration had shelved a 62-page set of guidelines created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening the country, the voluminous document was leaked.

It contained 19 specific recommendations – not rules – for reopening schools that AASA, The Superintendents Association, urged districts to follow.

Those recommendations include spacing desk 6 feet apart, canceling field trips and limited extracurricular activities, repeated emphasis on washing hands and related hygiene practices, canceling most work gatherings, staggering the use of cafeterias and other gathering places like playgrounds so they can be disinfected after every use, staggering arrival and drop-off times and even locations, assigning supplies like crayons and pens to individual students and restricting visits from parents or other nonessential people.

Vesely said her district is closely examining every inch of space on Kyrene’s 25 campuses, including those in Chandler.

“So, we’re looking at libraries – maybe they no longer will be libraries but they may be classrooms. The multi-purpose room may be divided off for classroom space. It’s looking at the space that exists at the school and how do we maximize that space to stay within the guidance as provided,” Vesely added.

Locke said Chandler Unified’s task force also is assessing everything from space to buses to how to achieve a high and frequent level of disinfecting – posing another new expense at a time when sales tax revenue, which accounts for $23 million of its annual budget, is in freefall.

But even as that all goes on, Chandler and other school officials have an even bigger worry: who will even come to school if campuses reopen?

The question involves both teachers and students.

Some districts, including Kyrene, are surveying teaching staff to see who plans to return to the classroom when school begins.

While available data suggests the spread of the virus among children may be low, the data is mixed on the frequency of child-to-adult transfers.

Even without children, however, interactions among school staff could pose a concern for at least some school employees, particularly those who are older.

CUSD apparently isn’t confronting a problem in that area, according to Locke, who said, “We are not experiencing any concerning trend. In fact, our retention is tracking to be higher than normal this year.”

Then there are worries about how many parents might not want to send their children to school – a prospect with major financial implications because the bulk of school districts’ state funding is based on enrollment.

CUSD was going live at the end of last week with an online survey on its website,, to assess what’s on parents’ minds.

Those concerns run the gamut: Some may have elderly family members in the household and might fear their child will inadvertently infect them. Some parents of special-needs children might fear for their kids’ safety.

The Arizona Board of Education acknowledge those concerns by establishing a new way for districts to expand their online learning programs to all grades so that students whose parents opt for distance learning will count in the state’s reimbursement formula.

The state board contracted with Rio Solado Community College to evaluate written descriptions of online educational programs.

CUSD has certification for online learning for grades 5-12 and is applying for certification for the lower grades, Locke said.

Districts also are assessing how they will handle transportation. While some states have talked about staggering start times so fewer children are on a bus, there is no agreement nationally on whether this will be necessary.

However, there is agreement among bus transportation professionals that additional sanitizing measures will be needed.

During a webinar last month on the subject, Mike Martin, executive director/CEO of the National Association of Pupil Transportation said that because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, there is no set best practice available.

His organization also asked its members to “work with their school leadership to issue a statement to parents about cleanliness on their school buses.”

In that same webinar, Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services, said that because buses are not designed for social distancing, school districts will have to determine how to protect both students and drivers and that in the short-run, drivers may have to be equipped with protective clothing to enhance their safety.

CUSD Governing Board and its peers throughout Arizona are now in the process of finalizing budgets for the next school year.

To help districts meet some of the new costs and revenue losses associated with the pandemic, Congress allotted $30.6 billion of its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for school districts.

Arizona’s share is $275 million and most districts have already been advised as to what they can expect. Locke said Chandler expects about $3.3 million.

But there’s a national controversy over that money after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos advised that private schools – those that charge tuition – share in that money.

Moreover, her department advised, private schools’ share should be based on the total number of all its students while public schools’ share must be based on the number of students who come from families at or below the poverty line.

Private schools within each district must request that money from the district.

Moreover, “schools must notify the private schools, but many privates have already reached out because it’s a much larger sum than in the past,” said Dr. Mark Joraanstad, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators.

Chandler Unified expects to be diverting 10 percent of whatever it gets to private schools, spokesman Terry Locke said.

“Two private schools who serve our community have expressed an interest,” he said. “It is our understanding that private schools will have access to up to 10 percent potentially. We are awaiting directions – and funding.”

Joraanstad has urged all Arizona superintendents to write to their congressional representatives and ask that Congress step in to blunt Devos’ advisory.

“It appears the House is considering putting further guidance language on their intent,” he told thee Arizonan.  “Whether the Senate would do so is more questionable.  However, some senators have expressed concern over abandoning the poverty standard that has a history going back to the mid 1960’s.”

The backlash against Devos’ plan, however, is growing among both Democrats and Republicans.

Indiana’s Republican state superintendent of education already has declared she state will ignore Devos’ directive.

Republican Sen. Alexander Lamar, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, has publicly expressed concern about her interpretation of the CARES Act.

“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Alexander told reporters last week. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

According to the website, “DeVos defended her interpretation of the law” and that she said, “it’s our interpretation that it is meant literally for all students and that includes students, no matter where they’re learning.”

Last week, The Hill reported that despite opposition from congressmen on both sides of the aisle DeVos accused state education leaders of having a “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control.” She said Friday she would draft a rule making her guidance mandatory and “resolve any issues in plenty of time for the next school year.”

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