Pandemic amplifies new Chandler school’s challenges The Chandler Arizonan

Pandemic amplifies new Chandler school’s challenges

Pandemic amplifies new Chandler school’s challenges
City News
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By Kevin Reagan, Arizonan Staff Writer

Shirley Mathew’s 25 years of experience working in the Chandler Unified School District couldn’t quite prepare her for the complexities of a pandemic.

She had been the principal of Weinberg Elementary and was preparing to transition to Rice Elementary, one of two new schools the district is opening this year, when COVID-19 struck.

The last five months have been tumultuous for all of the district’s principals and administrators, yet Mathew had the added challenge of straddling between two schools in the middle of the pandemic.

“One day I will write a book on all this,” she joked.

Not only did she have to figure out how to educate hundreds of students virtually, but Mathew had to deal with the weekly tasks of ordering supplies, assembling classrooms and preparing to open the new campus  at 1290 E. Ocotillo Road – which might not actually have any students in the near future.

The 2020-2021 school year was expected to be an exciting time for Rice’s students and teachers. Its newly-constructed classrooms have been stocked with new textbooks, desks and computers that are now waiting to be used by children.

The CUSD Governing Board decided last month to delay all in-person instruction at the district’s schools until the second quarter starts on Oct. 13.       

Though the district’s staff has the option to work from home, Mathew has been coming to school every day, working on a campus that should have had nearly 800 students on it by now.   

“It is extremely different,” the principal said about the school’s emptiness. “The joy that we have is from the buzz of children.”

When schools closed in March, Mathew’s staff at Weinberg was instructed to quickly pack up the entire school and vacate the campus within a couple weeks.

Suddenly staffers were in a mad dash to sanitize every object and empty out all the school’s classrooms, the principal recalled, resulting in an intense period of transition for the school’s staff.

But Mathew also had to simultaneously monitor all of Weinberg’s teachers in their shift to at-home virtual learning.

Teachers had to prepare take-home materials for students lacking internet access, Mathew said, while scrambling to clean up their classrooms before the end of the school year.

“The magnitude of what we had to do was just pretty phenomenal in a very short time,” Mathew said.

Once Mathew and her staff left Weinberg, they found themselves with no place to go. The Rice campus was still under construction and CUSD had to begin remodeling work at Weinberg for the next school year.

Another elementary school offered Mathew some spare space to open up a temporary summer office so parents could still contact her about questions regarding Rice’s expected opening in August.

There’s been an incredible amount of support from parents and the district during this stressful time, Mathew said, and it’s made the transition to Rice much easier.

Even after the campus was built and Mathew started moving her staff in, the pandemic interfered with the delivery of needed items like garbage cans, filing cabinets and cleaning supplies.

Supply networks have been regularly interrupted by COVID-19’s impact over the last few months, delaying the amount of time it typically takes items to arrive.

The school is still waiting for some items to arrive, Mathew said, but most of the campus is essentially ready for students to arrive.

The school’s floors have been marked with stickers to indicate where students should stand in relation to others. Classrooms have desks carefully arranged to prevent students from sitting too close to each other.

Rice has a plan for almost any scenario that may arise when in-person instruction begins, the principal said, and the school is prepared to make major changes in order to keep students safe.

Mathew said her current priority is keeping Rice’s students engaged while they’re learning from home.

She has been routinely dropping in on virtual lessons, posting videos with uplifting messages and answering questions from students via email.

Mathew said teachers continue to track attendance every day and ensure students are completing their lessons.

She said these last few months have taught her she doesn’t always have control over every situation and she is trying to remain flexible in order to adapt to the many blindsides of an evolving pandemic.

“We’re not giving power to the pandemic,” she noted. “But we’re certainly making sure we’re doing everything to protect our children.”

Rice Elementary had originally been envisioned as a sustainable campus that practices eco-friendly protocols and teaches students how to responsibly care for the environment.

Mathew said Rice still intends to fulfill that vision and has plans in place to construct a vegetable garden on campus for students to learn about horticulture.

Education may look and feel different in the coming months, she added, but students will still be learning and teachers will be doing everything they can to make them feel cared for.

“There’s a lot of good things that we’re planning for when the kids do come in-person,” she said. “It will still be school.”

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