As the August 17 school start date grows closer, TUSD has created a unique reopening plan with a completely virtual learning model. Administrators believe this is the only way to comply with Gov. Doug Ducey’s reopening rules while keeping staff, students and families safe.
Students who return to campus next month will be provided a computer and follow the same online learning program as students who stay home. They will be supervised by a school staff member in a room with about 10 to 13 other students, and will be required to follow safety precautions and wear a face mask at all times. Their teacher will not necessarily be in the room with them, and may be working from home.
Students who come to school will be able to take breaks throughout the day, including lunch on a staggered schedule. The online program will allow for collaboration in small groups that isn’t possible in an in-person setting.
At the July 14 board meeting, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said this plan allows consistency for all students and will make it easy to shift to remote learning if a school needs to abruptly close because of COVID-19 exposure. He said a paperless learning environment will help prevent the spread of germs, and online learning at school will help drive class sizes down.
To make this plan a reality, the board voted to approve a $4 million technology package that will make TUSD a "one-to-one district," meaning every family will be given a computer. Trujillo said this is a “cause for celebration,” because the district has been working toward this goal for years. The money will also provide 1,600 new laptops to teachers in need.
Of the families who have enrolled at TUSD for the 2020-21 school year, about 50 percent indicated they want to send their children back to campus on August 17.
Trujillo said he does not like the idea of putting every student in a “cookie cutter” standardized learning program, but in these extraordinary times it is the best option.
Students with disabilities and special needs will be prioritized for in-person learning and will not have to follow the same mask and physical distancing requirements as the general population. Trujillo said Individualized Education Programs will remain intact.
“This is not what we want for any of our children,” said Board Member Adelita Grijalva. “It is pandemic school, and I think that we are one of the first that has really gone into so much detail.”
Trujillo explained that Gov. Ducey’s recent executive orders have made it challenging for districts to maintain flexibility in their reopening plans and respond to families’ concerns. The governor is requiring every district and charter school to operate on a full 180-day calendar and be physically open at least the same number of days per week for the 2020-21 school year as the 2019-20 school year.
Trujillo notes this means a delay in starting the academic year would move school days deep into June 2021, affecting the district’s finances.
More importantly, any district that doesn’t comply with all requirements in the executive order would be ineligible to receive the state’s Enrollment Stabilization Grant, which guarantees that in a worst case scenario where enrollment numbers drop sharply, the most a school district could lose is 2 percent of their budget.
Trujillo said some districts in Maricopa County have already indicated they will keep schools closed until Oc. 1. If TUSD were to do this, every 45 days of online learning would equal a $4.9 million loss. They would also be deemed ineligible for the Enrollment Stabilization Grant.
If TUSD’s current enrollment trends hold, Trujillo said they will see an additional $4 million loss. And if they stay closed through October, some or all of the 50 percent of families who indicated they want to send their kids back to school in August could vanish.
With these potential losses in mind, the district also has to consider the safety of every person who steps foot on their campuses.
“We have teachers and employees who are scared,” Trujillo said. “Administrators are screaming at the top of their lungs that they need more time.”
He said he is working with legislators to remedy some of the issues with Gov. Ducey’s executive orders, and the district is doing whatever they can do to “influence the decision makers.”
School Board Letter
In an open letter to Ducey, governing board members from across Arizona requested a statewide closure of school buildings until Oct. 1, or the date districts end their first quarter of instruction. They believe the rapid increase Arizona is seeing in COVID-19 cases puts staff, students and their families at great risk.
Delaying to Oct. 1 would allow educators to better execute remote teaching, and if there is a reduction in the risk of infection by that time, the “natural break” in the academic calendar would be an ideal time to consider returning to the classroom, the letter said.
The board members asked the state to fund remote learning at the same level as in-person instruction, and provide every school with 100 percent of their prior-year funding.
They want the state’s 180-day requirement waived for the 2020-21 school year so students can return to classrooms when it’s safe to do so, not “because we are calculating how many school days each student must complete,” the letter said.
Board members asked to suspend statewide standardized testing for this year, and allow districts to use local assessments instead.
At the meeting, Trujillo said the governor should remove this burden on teachers. He questioned why academic expectations remain the same when districts are forced to significantly alter the learning environment.
“Something has to give,” he said.
The letter states that remote learning is the only guarantee districts have for the safety of students and staff during the rising COVID-19 outbreak. They believe the governor’s executive order penalizes school districts for offering only remote learning, because it requires districts to offer a physical attendance option for five days a week to receive total funding through the Enrollment Stabilization Grants.
“While we appreciate the decision to require five days of on-site learning is to assure families have a place to send their children so they can continue to earn an income and financially contribute to our economy, this decision is inequitable and greatly impacts our poorest communities the most,” the letter said. “The majority of families in our wealthiest neighborhoods will be able to work from home and continue to deliver on-line classes to their children remotely. Working-class families do not have this luxury, and the schools in our poorest communities will see the largest class sizes, and undoubtedly a larger number of COVID-19 infections and fatalities.”
The letter is signed by governing board members from TUSD, Sunnyside, Amphitheater and districts from several regions across the state.
Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams said it’s very important that the governor listen to the voices of elected governing board members.
“They are the ones that have full authority for the policies that are made, and they are the ones that are fielding as many calls as we are on a daily basis from these concerned parents,” he said.
Williams said there is a “growing concern” from families who are uncomfortable sending their children back to school, and that Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services need to provide more leadership in a timely manner.