Reopening ‘roadmap” charts rocky path for schools SanTan Sun News

Reopening ‘roadmap” charts rocky path for schools

June 15th, 2020 development
Reopening ‘roadmap” charts rocky path for schools
Community
0

By paul maryniak
Executive Editor

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has released a 35-page “roadmap for reopening schools in August that could become a handy tool for parents in deciding whether they want to send their children to campuses – and what questions they should be asking their kids’ schools.

But those guidelines are only the beginning for Chandler Unified and other school districts as they peer into a murky future that’s only about eight weeks away.

Stressing the guidelines are designed to provide districts “with parameters and options as they develop their own contingency plans,” the state Department of Education’s “Roadmap for Reopening Schools” raises a myriad of issues that could impact everyone from students to taxpayers.

It also comes as Superintendent Camille Casteel is preparing to show the CUSD Governing Board June 10 what her administrators are proposing for a possible reopening of schools.

The options in Hoffman’s roadmap raise the possibility of potentially significant costs for districts, like buying more buses and increasing class space; an array of daily inconveniences for parents, like staggered schedules; headaches for teachers and staff, like daily testing and repetitive hygiene instruction; and huge disappointments for students at every grade level, such as making field trips and assemblies virtual and curbing participation in large activities such as sports.

And it calls on the State Legislature – which would have to be convened for a special session – to give districts a break on regulations affecting their per-pupil reimbursement and increasing their flexibility for teaching kids.

“There have been growing concerns regarding public school budget stability due to potential shifts in student enrollment and attendance and the ability to expand and offer learning opportunities in either or both a traditional brick and mortar setting or through a virtual platform,” the roadmap states.

“School leaders are exploring various instructional models in which students could learn from home on a partial or full-time basis,” it continues. “However, state statute currently does not fully accommodate the need to implement new and multiple types of instructional models, including for distance learning.”

CUSD and most other districts in Arizona already have been looking at options and planning different reopening alternatives that will depend heavily on the status of COVID-19 spread in communities.

CUSD spokesman Terry Locke said the district’s task force is planning for “a number of possibilities for the 2020-2021 school year, ranging from reopening of schools with increased safety and sanitation measures, a hybrid of online and classroom instruction, continuing distance learning and finally a plan for if we reopen and then need to close if conditions require.”

The issues are staggering in their complexity and breadth.

They affect how students will get to and from school, how they will sit and move around inside them, how they will eat and play. Field trips and extracurriculars activities – from sports to choral to band – also await scrutiny.

Officials also must assess what Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis called in a public discussion “learning loss” among students over the last three months of distance learning as well as the continuing “digital divide” between students with internet access and those without.

Hoffman herself acknowledged that one of the first things teachers will have to determine if kids are back in school is what they learned during distance learning so schools can determine “which kids are needing the most support.”

“There may be kids that, during this time, have jumped ahead a grade level and maybe students who are working and need a lot more review from this past academic year that have really missed a lot,” she said.

Even the impact of closures on students’ mental health is an issue, given the prolonged alarm over the virus and their long separation from classmates and campus life.

The roadmap itself lays out four scenarios districts should consider, depending on their level of preparation.

Key to all four scenarios is districts’ ability to follow the “decision tree” laid out by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Protection.

The very first guideline in that three-step self-evaluation process advises districts not to reopen campuses if it cannot screen students and employees for symptoms and exposure history and cannot protect the higher risk people.

The first scenario okays reopening if there is “non-to-minimal local/community cases of COVID-19,” a school board approved contingency plan, “clearly communicated screening expectations” and a plan to address the “medically fragile.”

A second scenario poses a hybrid approach with both distance learning and brick-and-mortar classes.

The roadmap does not address how distance learning might work for high school lab classes or for students in vocational training such as and Technical Education program and those attending the East Valley Institute of Technology a half day each day.

The third involves starting the 2020-21 school year the same way the 2019-20 school year ended – with all students learning from home until the district feels it can meet reopen campuses and the fourth scenario involves emergency closures.

“The task force is reviewing the guidelines and appreciates the direction,” Locke said.

To emphasize that her department’s recommendations are just that, Hoffman’s roadmap contains disclaimers, advising districts it is not a legal document and is not necessarily error-free.

The roadmap advises districts to identify essential functions and then address non-essential ones such as after-school activities, field trips and sporting events.

The roadmap and related information also provide a thorough list of issues that parents can consider in deciding whether to send their kids back to school as soon as campuses reopen. The material is at azed.gov/communications/2020/03/10/guidance-to-schools-on-covid-19.

The questions the roadmap asks the district officials to ask themselves could easily be asked of them by parents.

They include questions like how prepared is everyone for a sudden shift to an all-distance learning set-up, what hardware and software is needed for  disabled students and how will staff be trained in safety protocols and how will those protocols be enforced.

Students also could expect a much different environment when they return if some suggestions are implemented.

They include the possibility of having to wear masks on school buses, sitting at desks that all face in the same direction rather than toward each other or sitting only on one side of work tables safely distant from each other and even being advised how to walk in corridors and maintain social distancing.

Besides smaller classes, the road map also suggests that teachers and the same students remain together for most if not all the school day – a difficult, if not impossible, scenario especially for high school students, given that they all don’t take the same subjects in a semester.

The roadmap also suggests that districts close common areas like cafeterias and playgrounds, letting kids eat in the classroom or otherwise “stagger use and clean and disinfect between use.”

And when social distancing is not possible, it suggests districts may want to consider limiting nonessential volunteers, visitors and “activities involving external groups or organizations as possible, especially with individuals who are not from the local geographic area.”

Hoffman also suggested that the underlying issue in a survey showing 18 percent of parents are unwilling to send the kids back to school could be addressed with more information.

“I would encourage them to be as involved as possible and for our schools to be over-communicating with families on what types of policies and procedures they are putting into place to make schools as safe as possible,” Hoffman said.

One apparent worry not confronting CUSD is whether enough teachers are willing to return to school.

“We are not experiencing any concerning trend,” Locke said. “In fact, our retention is tracking to be higher than normal this year.”

Parents who might not want to send their children to school pose major financial implications to districts because the bulk of their state funding is based on enrollment.

CUSD went live at the end of May with an online survey on its website, cusd80.com, to assess what’s on parents’ minds.

The Arizona Board of Education acknowledge those concerns by establishing a new way for districts to expand their online learning programs to all grades so that students whose parents opt for distance learning will count in the state’s reimbursement formula.

The state board contracted with Rio Solado Community College to evaluate written descriptions of online educational programs.

CUSD has certification for online learning for grades 5-12 and is applying for certification for the lower grades, Locke said.

Districts also are assessing how they will handle transportation. While some states have talked about staggering start times so fewer children are on a bus, there is no agreement nationally on whether this will be necessary.

However, there is agreement among bus transportation professionals that additional sanitizing measures will be needed.

During an April webinar last month on the subject, Mike Martin, executive director/CEO of the National Association of Pupil Transportation said that because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, there is no set best practice available.

His organization also asked its members to “work with their school leadership to issue a statement to parents about cleanliness on their school buses.”

In that same webinar, Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services, said that because buses are not designed for social distancing, school districts will have to determine how to protect both students and drivers and that in the short-run, drivers may have to be equipped with protective clothing to enhance their safety.

Hoffman’s recommendations indicate that if districts can’t afford to buy more buses in order to have fewer students riding together, everyone on board may have to wear masks.

Locke said Chandler Unified’s task force also is assessing everything from space to buses to how to achieve a high and frequent level of disinfecting – posing another new expense at a time when sales tax revenue, which accounts for $23 million of its annual budget, is in freefall.

The plans for reopening come at a time when the CUSD Governing Board and its peers throughout Arizona are now in the process of finalizing budgets for the next school year.

To help districts meet some of the new costs and revenue losses associated with the pandemic, Congress allotted $30.6 billion of its $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act for school districts.

Arizona’s share is $275 million and most districts have already been advised as to what they can expect. Locke said Chandler expects about $3.3 million.

But there’s a national controversy over that money after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos advised that private schools – those that charge tuition – share in that money.

Moreover, her department advised, private schools’ share should be based on the total number of all its students while public schools’ share must be based on the number of students who come from families at or below the poverty line.

Private schools within each district must request that money from the district.

Moreover, “schools must notify the private schools, but many privates have already reached out because it’s a much larger sum than in the past,” said Dr. Mark Joraanstad, executive director of the Arizona School Administrators.

Chandler Unified expects to be diverting 10 percent of whatever it gets to private schools, Locke said.

“Two private schools who serve our community have expressed an interest,” he said. “It is our understanding that private schools will have access to up to 10 percent potentially. We are awaiting directions – and funding.”

Joraanstad has urged all Arizona superintendents to write to their congressional representatives and ask that Congress step in to blunt Devos’ advisory.

“It appears the House is considering putting further guidance language on their intent,” he told GSN.  “Whether the Senate would do so is more questionable.  However, some senators have expressed concern over abandoning the poverty standard that has a history going back to the mid 1960’s.”

There has been a backlash against Devos’ plan, however, among both Democrats and Republicans.

Indiana’s Republican state superintendent of education already has declared she state will ignore Devos’ directive.

And last week Hoffman also rejected Devos’ guideline.

“The Department believes this approach is consistent with both Congressional intent and the U.S. Department of Education’s longstanding interpretation” of education law referenced in the CARES Act,” an Arizona Department of Education spokesperson wrote in an email on Monday to politico.com.

Michael Rice, Michigan’s state superintendent, wrote in a memo to districts that DeVos’ argument “sounds reasonable but is not” and encouraged them to set aside the additional money that would go to private school kids.

Republican Sen. Alexander Lamar, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, has publicly expressed concern about her interpretation of the CARES Act.

“My sense was that the money should have been distributed in the same way we distribute Title I money,” Alexander told reporters last week. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”

According to politico.com, “DeVos defended her interpretation of the law” and that she said, “It’s our interpretation that it is meant literally for all students and that includes students, no matter where they’re learning.”

But The Hill subsequently reported that despite opposition from congressmen on both sides of the aisle DeVos accused state education leaders of having a “reflex to share as little as possible with students and teachers outside of their control,” and said she would draft a rule that would make her guidance mandatory and “resolve any issses in plenty of time for the next school year.”

Devos has reasserted her determination to force public schools to share that money with private schools – those charging tuition – by crafting an order that some observers said will be harder to ignore. That could send the matter into court and possibly delay the distribution of funds.

(Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.)

Comments are closed.