Kyrene, TU return to at-home learning for all The Chandler Arizonan

Kyrene, TU return to at-home learning for all

December 1st, 2020 Chandler Arizona Staff
Kyrene, TU return to at-home learning for all
City News
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By PAUL MARYNIAK
Executive Editor

Amid metrics showing a surge in COVID-19 throughout Ahwatukee and Arizona, virtually all Kyrene and Tempe Union students are back to learning at home – likely for the rest of 2020.

Both districts within hours of each other on Friday notified parents that virtual instruction would be the order of the day effective next Monday, though they are making on-campus provisions for special education and a few other students.

Though neither districts’ officials indicated when students might be invited back into classrooms – even for a few days a week – the last day of the quarter is Dec. 17 and officials have previously said it takes two weeks to ramp up for open campuses.

Meanwhile, Horizon Honors in Ahwatukee remains open, although it announced last week that secondary students would learn at home on Wednesdays to allow for deep cleaning of their part of the campus. Elementary classrooms remain open and all families can elect five-day virtual learning

More significant is the likelihood that Kyrene and Tempe union students will learn at home the rest of the calendar year as the virus surges. It shows no sign of reversing, especially after the long Thanksgiving weekend that already was causing considerable concern among health and other officials in Arizona.

During a press conference Nov. 17, Gov. Doug Ducey said that “getting back to normal isn’t in the cards right now” and state health Director Dr. Cara Christ said virus metrics “are going in the wrong direction.”

At the same time, Ducey renewed his contention that schools should provide in-classroom learning.

Noting that more than 800 students are in quarantine, Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely wrote parents:

“When we see substantial community spread, it poses a risk to our entire school community, not just children, and for those who are older or at high risk, the outcome could be life threatening. My first and foremost priority is to keep everyone safe.”

Kyrene followed Tempe Elementary in closing classrooms in the wake of increases in all three benchmarks used by school districts in deciding whether to keep campuses open. Both those districts are feeder districts for Tempe Union and it was no surprise that Tempe Union pulled the trigger quickly.

Tempe Union Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald briefed his Governing Board on Nov. 18, the day before updated metrics were released by the county, and noted that there has been a steady increase in cases the last two weeks and said it is unlikely the metrics would decline any time soon.

“We know what’s coming our way,” he said.

During that meeting, Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil reiterated that – unlike Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified – all schools would close if a decision is made to return to full virtual learning because principals had said months ago they wanted all schools maintaining the same approach to learning.

Both Gilbert and Chandler are closing schools on an individual basis after setting thresholds for the percentage of active COVID-19 cases on their campus.

Separate triggers were established by those districts for elementary, middle and high school campuses that range from 1 to 2 percent of a school’s population with infections. The higher percentages were set for elementary schools because it is easier to keep those students socially distant.

The Tempe Union Governing Board on Nov. 18 voted 3-2 to give Mendivil authority to make the decision on closing. Andres Barraza and Sandy Lowe abstained, saying they didn’t think the board could vote because the resolution was not on the agenda. Mendivil disagreed, as did the three other board members who backed him.

The latest data from the county showed that for the week of Nov. 15, cases per 100,000 jumped 215 in Kyrene’s boundaries and to 246 within Tempe Union’s boundaries. That indicates substantial virus spread.

The data are 12 days old when the county posts them on Thursday mornings.

The percentage of new test results coming back positive was 7.8 percent in Kyrene and 8.48 percent in Tempe Union.

Although that latter metric’s level is considered an indication of moderate spread, Mendivil noted the state was “cavalier” in changing that guideline since earlier this year a 7 percent positivity had been considered a sign of substantial spread.

In both Tempe Union and Kyrene, the third benchmark – percent of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms – rose for the first time in a couple months from the minimal-spread category and entered the moderate-spread level.

Both Mendivil and Vesely made indirect references of that particular metric’s increase.

“A growing number of staff are experiencing COVID-like symptoms due to flu, colds or other viruses. Staff are required to remain home with ANY symptoms, and we are having extreme difficulty securing substitute teachers for those classrooms,” they said in their respective messages to parents, adding:

“Soon, we will not have enough personnel to cover classes. Moving to contingency reduces the risk of teachers being out sick.”

Both superintendents also stated that while many families “have been diligent about practicing good safety habits both on and off campus,” they have seen “multiple cases of students sent to school with symptoms or while awaiting COVID test results.

“These incidents put staff and students at risk in addition to causing preventable school quarantines,” their messages said.

“Higher community spread translates into higher positive COVID cases on campuses, higher counts of quarantine and greater risk for everyone,” they added.

Mendivil also noted that, like Kyrene, while the actual number of active cases on any Tempe Union campus was relatively low, more than 600 students and staff had been isolated or quarantined due to possible exposure on campus.

   The two districts’ decision came three days after Ducey told a press conference he wants to see in-classroom learning continue. “I think children should be in school,” the governor said. “I want parents to have options and one of those options should be in-person learning.”

   He also insisted that his position did not compromise children’s safety, stating:

  “Despite the best efforts of of teachers and parents, no one can argue: Kids have already missed out on too much learning due to this pandemic.”

  Kyrene began reopening campuses in mid-September, opening classrooms for the lowest grades in mid-September until finally all campuses were open by mid-October.

   In mid-October, Tempe Union students were divided alphabetically to attend in-class instruction either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday while all students are learning at home on Wednesdays.

Mendivil at the board meeting Nov. 18 said that more students’ families throughout the district were opting to learn at home five days a week.

He said about 60 percent of students in the district’s northern campuses had opted for at-home learning. Virtually all school districts in the East Valley are showing similar increases in cases per 100,000 and positivity.

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