By Colleen Sparks
Local schools are delaying the usual start date of the next academic year as they struggle to try to decide the safest and most effective ways to teach students and promote their emotional health while keeping them physically safe amid the COVID-19 crisis.
Gov. Doug Ducey, as of press time, had delayed schools around Arizona from reopening for in-person classes until at least Aug. 17 because of the increase in the number of Coronavirus cases in the state. Schools were closed in March due to the Coronavirus pandemic and then Ducey and Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman extended the closures until the end of that school year.
Administrators in public school districts, as well as in private and charter schools in North Central Phoenix have been gathering input from parents, teachers and medical professionals and keeping tabs on the latest news about COVID-19 cases as they try to develop plans for how and when to begin instruction on their campuses and/or online or some combination of the two methods. They stress that the opening dates for in-person classes could change any day depending on direction from Ducey and the news about the spread of the virus in Arizona.
In some cases, parents will be able to choose if they want to send their children and teens back to campuses or to allow them to take classes online.
Osborn School District, as of press time, had plans to start online classes for the 2020-21 school year on Monday, Aug. 3 and begin in-person classes in the schools on Oct. 12 at the earliest, Superintendent Michael Robert said. If the district determines it is not safe to open Oct. 12 it will delay in-person classes until after that. Parents can still choose to keep their children in online classes even after on-campus classes resume.
“What we’re looking for is hopefully a return to what numbers were looking like at the end of May, the curve has flattened,” Robert said. “We’re just listening to parents that have expressed concern, staff that have expressed concern and the feeling that it’s just not the right time, not a safe environment for coming back.”
Five different task forces met to work out reopening scenarios.
Robert said when campuses reopen for in-person learning, parents will be asked to take their children’s temperatures before they come to school. Students and employees with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be asked to go home, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a fever is one of the symptoms of COVID-19. Students and workers will be required to wear face shields or masks on campus except for when eating and for children during recess.
Phoenix Union High School District will start virtual/online classes Aug. 3 but not start classes in-person until at least the second quarter.
In a video online, Phoenix Union Superintendent Chad Gestson said that classes would remain online for at least the first two months of the school year until it is safe to reopen in-person.
“When we closed last March, we made two very clear commitments to you, our community,” Gestson said. “First is that your safety, your health, your wellness will always be our top priority and at the same time we also promised that we will not abandon our students and our families and our community and we will continue to provide, whether we are in person or remote, the best possible support and services to our students and our families that we can and that same commitment is true today.”
He declined to be interviewed for the article.
The Madison School District at a special governing board meeting July 21 voted to delay in-person learning on its physical campuses until the end of the first quarter, which is Oct. 2, or earlier only if there is a downward trend of COVID-19 cases showing it is safe to reopen sooner. If in-person learning starts after the first quarter, in-person classes would begin Oct. 5. Online learning for Madison district students will start Aug. 11. The district also will provide opportunities for students to do their online learning at a physical location, supervised by a Madison district employee, starting Aug. 17, as long as Arizona schools can open then in-person. The district will follow the CDC guidelines for safety in those locations.
Previously the Madison governing board had approved a plan to start in-person classes on Aug. 17. Later Madison School District Superintendent Kenneth Baca in a letter to district families July 15 said “we now find ourselves in a very different place than where we were on June 30 when the plan was adopted.”
“There continues to be wide community spread of the virus,” Baca wrote. “According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, all of our schools and bordering communities, as of July 14, are in the category with the widest community spread (greater than 250).”
Madison’s reopening plan for when campuses do resume in-person learning will require students to wear a cloth or surgical face mask, except for “Any student who has difficulty breathing or who is incapable of physically removing the face masks on his/her own” and “alternative methods of protection will be discussed by parents and staff, including the use of a face shield.” Students will not have to wear masks when they are eating or drinking.
Staff members also will be required to wear a cloth or surgical face mask in the Madison district and students must not come to school if they have any of the many symptoms of COVID-19 including a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Staff members will teach students to “maintain, if feasible,” at least six-feet between individuals outside of classrooms and schools will try to “physically distance desks and tables as far apart as feasible,” the plan said.
The Madison district developed the reopening plan with guidance from the CDC and district parents who also are practicing medical physicians. There also were task forces with parents, teachers and administrators that provided input.
Charlotte Shaff, who has two sons in the Madison district: Eric, 9; and Jake, 10, supports the district’s plans. Her sons will go to a day camp at a local business, where children can do schoolwork online, with adult supervision, and engage in gymnastics and other physical activities this fall before in-person classes start.
“I feel like it’s a good move and I feel confident that they looked at as many different viewpoints and feedback as possible, both teachers and parents, the doctors who are on the panel,” Shaff said.
Madison Highland Prep, a charter high school at 1431 E. Campbell Ave., is giving parents the option of their students starting classes either through distance learning/online or in-person Aug. 17. If the state delays the allowed start date for in-person classes, then all students at the school will start the year online.
Once in-person instruction returns, students can either come in person or attend school online for the first quarter, the first semester and possibly longer.
Glendale Union High School District Superintendent Brian Capistran declined a request to be interviewed about reopening plans. In a letter to parents posted online July 9, it discussed three possible approaches for the start of the 2020-21 school year: remote/online; a hybrid style where students come to classes in person and online different days; and all in-person learning.
Brophy College Preparatory, a private, all-boys high school, plans to start classes in person Aug. 17 but it will also provide online classes for students who are not ready to return to campus, Principal Robert Ryan III said.
Students and staff members will be required to wear masks, except when eating lunch and social distancing will be done whenever feasible, Ryan said.
Plexiglass will be used in some areas of Brophy to enhance safety.
Xavier College Preparatory is planning to return for online classes Aug. 13 and 14 and then bring students back in person Aug. 17, as long as the state does not change the allowed start date, said Sister Joan Nuckols, BVM, principal at Xavier. Students can choose to keep doing online learning starting Aug. 17.
The campus will incorporate social distancing and students will be required to wear masks except when eating lunch. Individuals will be asked to stay home if they have a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher.
St. Francis Xavier School, a prekindergarten through eighth grade school, has prepared three different plans for the coming academic year, depending on direction from Gov. Ducey and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, St. Francis Xavier School Principal Ryan Watson said. One would be for all students to be back on campus, another would divide the school into two groups that would rotate between taking classes online at home and coming to campus and a third choice would be an online-only scenario.
Students’ temperatures will be checked on campus once in-person learning starts at St. Francis Xavier.
Midtown Primary School, a charter school for grades kindergarten through fourth, plans to reopen for online classes Aug. 5 and then in-person classes Aug. 17. Students can remain online after Aug. 17, if they choose, Principal Judy White said. Children and employees will wear masks except during lunch and students screened to make sure they do not have temperatures before starting the school day. Social distancing will be done as much as is possible.