Kyrene plans numerous changes for schools The Chandler Arizonan

Kyrene plans numerous changes for schools

Kyrene plans numerous changes for schools
City News

Arizonan Executive Editor

Kyrene School District last week became one of the first in the state to roll out a fully developed plan for the new school year – and it includes a fulltime digital program that officials believe will attract students from around the state.

Kyrene School District’s plan for the 2020-21 school year anticipates that as many as half the students will continue learning at home while those who do go back to its Chandler and other campuses can expect to spend more time in the same classroom, even for meals.

They won’t have fall break as the district tries to cram more learning before flu season begins and their parents will be asked to run through a virus checklist before sending their kids off to school.

And children who ride school buses won’t be sitting next to a classmate. They’ll also have to wear a mask, though masks won’t be required on campuses.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the plan is the Kyrene Digital Academy, which will offer specially trained district teachers with a curriculum developed by the district that mirrors what kids in brick-and-mortar classes learn.

To be eligible for enrollment, families will be required to have internet access, although the district will supply them with a Chrome book that only the student can use – and only for school work.

While Kyrene may try to help in-district families who can’t afford internet service get plugged in, the current requirement for enrollment is that a family have online capability.

Under no circumstances will families living outside the district be helped with internet service if they want to enroll in the Digital Academy.

Board President Michael Myrick said the Digital Academy had the potential of dramatically increasing the district’s enrollment – and, hence, state funding.

“I think what we’re proposing for this distance partner is going to be very attractive to a number of families outside of the country in school district,” Myrick said. “And so I’m predicting we’re going to have – and I hope I’m right – a boom of out-of-district students but in-state residents who choose that model for all the reasons that were outlined.”

Those reasons, said Pueblo Middle School Principal Dr. Kyle Ross, “will distinguish us from other options that are available in Arizona.

They include dedicated teachers who will be with students throughout the year and interacting live with them as well a curriculum that mirrors that taught in classrooms and “not online content purchased from a vendor,” Ross said.

“Students will digitally interact with their teachers and other students and large groups, small groups and one-on-one activities – just as they would on campus using new and updated digital learning resources developed by our Kyrene staff,”
Ross said.

“We will be offering all of our core courses, of course, as well as the same lessons and activities for social-emotional learning that our brick-and-mortar students will receive. “In addition, we’ll be offering special areas and electives for students as well as providing services and accommodations for those students who require them – such as special education and gifted.”

The district also has a “flex option” combining distance and brick-and-mortar learning.

Kyrene surveyed parents, asking them to fill out a questionnaire for every child that would be attending district schools. Over 9,000 responses were received – representing about three-quarters of the district’s 13,000-student population.

The survey showed 55 percent of respondents favored on-campus learning with the rest favoring some kind of online instruction.

Vesely said the emails she received from parents show the wide range of attitudes and expectations among households that in effect require Kyrene and most districts to offer both in-classroom and distance learning.

Parents will be asked next month to commit to one or the other so the district can adequately prepare for both types of learning.

The hybrid system addresses two major concerns facing all school districts.

The first involves older teachers and staff who are at a higher risk of being infected by the coronavirus and may be concerned of exposure in a classroom full of children.

Those teachers will be assigned to conduct lessons virtually.

Moreover, Kyrene can address social distancing in classrooms and buses with considerably less expense.

The district had studied space needs at all its 25 campuses to determine whether libraries and multipurpose rooms would have to be converted into classrooms.

“Knowing that, we believe that our class sizes are going to be smaller anyway,” Vesely said.

That means desks can be kept six feet away from each other without converting rooms into classrooms – something that would have been impossible to achieve anyway, Vesely said, “because we just don’t have enough staff.”

Vesely also said principals at all Kyrene campuses have been plotting out a range of other scheduling issues, from recess to specialty classes, to ensure students and staff are kept as safe as possible.

Containment model for all grades

The model that all elementary and middle school students will be adjusting is one of “containment” – meaning kids won’t be going from classroom to classroom for different courses.

Instead will be served by a team of teachers for basic subjects, specialty classes like music and art and electives in middle school.

“We’re going to have kids stay in their own classrooms to try to prevent and eliminate interacting with large groups of kids and adults,” Vesely said, noting that policy has been advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Adolescents can’t keep their hands off each other,” she said. “They act, after they get out of every class, like they’re seeing long-lost friends. They come and hug.”

Containment also means they will be eating breakfast and lunch at their desks, eliminating another major occasion for possible COVID-19 spread.

“The cafeteria usually has at any given time 100 to 200 children elbow to elbow,” Vesely said. “So we will have both breakfast and lunch available for kids in their classrooms and we’ve been working with our food service provider to make that happen.”

Vesely said social distancing problems are even more challenging in middle school.

“It’s even worse in middle school in terms of kids going from classroom to classroom every 50 minutes,” she explained.

A “rainy day schedule” will be in effect at campuses – meaning “Kids don’t get dropped off and then go to the playground; kids get dropped off and go right to their classroom,” Vesely said.

At the same time, students whose parents keep them at home will be taking the same subjects online.

“Our teachers are working through June to really develop the engagement strategies in an online environment for the lessons,” Vesely said. “It will be Kyrene’s own product and it will be K-8.”

As for masks, students will not be required to wear them on campus unless their parents request it.

“Masks are not necessary when you have social distancing,” Vesely said.

Although teachers can wear masks, for some it’s not possible because younger children need to see their teachers’ mouths to learn things like letter and word pronunciations.

However, children will be required to wear masks on buses because those are enclosed spaces.

Recess time with fewer kids

Students will still go outside for two recess breaks – but they won’t have a chance to catch up with their friends in other classes or grades.

“They’ll go out for recess but only with their group of kids. They won’t go out with all of the first grade, all of second grade, all of third grade,” Vesely said.

“What happens in that model is that you really do contain any contamination or any spread of infection and you limit it,” she continued, adding:

“So, if one of those classes was to become infected with COVID-19, we may not have to close the whole school because we have it contained.”

“We want our kids to go outside because being outside is very good for them,” she said.

“We always struggle with this at the beginning of the year because of the heat advisories, but we are going to encourage that teacher to take the children outside and play shadow tag or whatever. We’re thinking of creative ideas to keep kids active and get them outside.”

Recess and lunch times will be staggered so a teacher can safely take a class outside “and that we don’t have 300 kids on the playground at one time,” Vesely said.

No visitors, parental wellness checks

The district has planned other measures to protect children and staff.

“We’re going to have disposable masks available and we’ll have PPE equipment for people like health aides – people who will be seeing people who are potentially ill,” Vesely said.

“We are buying hand sanitizer by the gallons,” she said, adding that students will be put through their paces washing their hands frequently.

At the same time, visitors will not be allowed.

“We’re going to be careful and not let other adults onto our campuses,” Vesely said.

“This will be hard as we’re not going to be able to have volunteers. We’re not going to be able to have people from community college working in our schools, at least until things start getting safer and better.”

At the same, the district is providing parents with a wellness checklist not unlike those used in workplaces.

“We’re going to depend upon parents to help us out there,” Vesely said, “and then when the kids get to school, the first thing they’re going to do is go wash their hands because we don’t know what they’ve touched before on their way to school. They will wash their hands in their classroom because we have sinks in our classrooms.

“But if we have any reason for a child to do a temperature check,” she continued, “of course, we’re going to have health aides and nurses to follow up and check temperatures. But we’re not going to go classroom to classroom and take temperatures.”

As for determining whether children have sustained what some educators have called “learning loss” from the shutdown that climaxed last school year, Vesely said the district routinely starts a new school year with academic assessments.

This year the district also will be giving additional attention to students’ emotional and mental health.

Vesely said the district has been assessing middle school students’ social-emotional health for several years and that it likely will extend those assessments to elementary students as well.

Those assessments help staff identify children who are struggling emotionally, enabling the district to have counselors and parents work together to address any major issues.

The district will also have before- and after-school programs, but they too will follow a containment model “where smaller groups of kids will be with an adult and they’ll stay with that group in those environments,” Vesely explained.

“We’re going to mirror all of our procedures and protocols in the before- and after-school environment,” she said.

And intramural sports likely will be held, although they may not start as early in the school year as they have in the past.

“We’re going to use obviously the guidance of the Arizona Interscholastic Association and focus on sports that can support social distancing,” Vesely said.

While some PTO activities will be curbed by social distancing, Vesely said they’ll still have fundraisers as they do in cooperation with local restaurants.

“We will evaluate whether we can have things like fall festivals and carnivals – things where large groups of people converge on a school,” she said.

“We hope by the beginning of October, we will have a better idea if that can ease up,” she said, noting:

“It’s our responsibility to protect our kids but even more so our community and to do what we can to help them minimize the spread.”

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