CUSD board member alarmed by district’s COVID response - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

CUSD board member alarmed by district’s COVID response

January 3rd, 2021 SanTan Sun News
CUSD board member alarmed by district’s COVID response

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

A Chandler Unified School District board member struck out on her request late last month to hold a special meeting to discuss the district’s response to the surge in COVID-19 cases.
After observing data metrics continue to worsen in Arizona and Chandler, board member Lara Bruner said she requested an emergency board meeting on Dec. 23 to review the district’s instructional options as students prepare to return to school Jan. 5.
The governing board last met Dec. 9 and is not scheduled to hold a regular meeting until Jan. 13.
But Bruner told parents last week in an email that she became concerned when all three metrics for virus spread hit the “substantial” level on Dec. 17. The most recent available data prior to the SanTan Sun News’ deadline showed that while cases per 100,000 dropped from 710 to 573 – still nearly six times the threshold for substantial spread – positive new COVID-19 test results increased from 16 to 18 percent and hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms jumped from 10.2 to 12.6 percent. The threshold for substantial spread in those two latter categories is 10 percent.
Bruner said she asked on Dec. 18 for the meeting to solely discuss the “instructional modality” for students.
District administration is allowing allow students to choose between online and in-classroom learning the first two weeks of January, though the district also states on its website that “providing quality instruction for students in-person will continue to be the primary focus for classroom teachers.”
Bruner said, “The ostensible reason given for the refusal was that a committee will be forming after break to discuss COVID-19.”
“I believe considering the most current and reliable data, which includes the county recommendation to go to virtual instruction, does not undermine district committee work that has not yet begun,” she told parents.
“It is in fact our duty and responsibility as a governing board to address this in a timely manner. And as soon as community members and employees in direct contact with students present the committee recommendation, we will certainly revisit this issue to include their feedback.”
She also suggested the board had a bigger role to play in deciding when campuses should reopen.
“In addition, this is not a decision that should rest on the superintendent’s shoulders. Boards give direction; superintendents implement that direction. I have made my views on this clear in previous board meetings, but wanted to make sure you were aware in case you did not have the opportunity to watch the numerous hours of discussion on this topic,” she wrote.
In a statement to SanTan Sun News, Bruner declined to elaborate on her email and did not say who rejected her meeting request.
The board’s policies allow special meetings to be held whenever necessary as long as a public notice is published 24 hours before their start time.
Board President Barbara Mozdzen, who was recently elected to another four-year term, presides over board meetings. She did not respond to questions regarding Bruner’s request for a special meeting.
Board member Lindsay Love, who has been openly critical of CUSD’s handling of the pandemic, said she was disappointed Bruner’s request was denied – especially since Bruner is a teacher in Tempe Union High School District, which has yet to allow five-day in-class learning this school year.
Tempe Union had allowed students to be in classrooms two days a week beginning in mid-October, but shut down campuses a month later when virus metrics began trending upward.
“It is concerning that a request for an emergency board meeting from the only board member who is closest to the situation as an educator was denied,” Love said. “It sets a tone that we do not value the voices of our educators.”
Bruner and Love have often sided with each other in arguing for a more cautious approach to reopening the district’s schools. Over the summer, they voted against allowing students back on campuses in September, when the metrics were considerably lower than they are now.
During the board’s Dec. 9 meeting, Bruner said she was disheartened to not see CUSD “follow the science” by continuing to allow in-person instruction.
“We know that we should be following the metrics of the county,” she said. “And we know that we are putting lots of people at risk.”
Despite the district-wide virus data, active COVID-19 cases reported at individual CUSD campuses currently don’t meet the district’s threshold for triggering a temporary closure.
Bruner said many CUSD families expected the district to take action when the metrics worsened and feels like the district is not responding to concerns she’s made multiple times.
“It kind of feels like I’m Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day.’ We’ve had this conversation many times,” Bruner said, referring to the 1993 film about a man stuck reliving the same day endlessly.
The district’s current position has not sat well with some parents.
One parent wrote new board member Joel Wirth, a former CUSD administrator, that there are no signs the virus surge will ebb soon and told him how her fourth-grade daughter at a Chandler school had contracted COVID-19.
She said she was concerned her son, a Casteel High student, risked infection if he returned to the campus but that keeping him home for online learning was not feasible.
Because his sister had tested positive, she said, her son “has already been forced to quarantine and missed all his finals.”
“I try not to worry about grades because it’s crazy right now, but if the rest of the school is carrying on as if we are not in the worst time of this pandemic yet, how is it fair that those of us actually exercising caution watch our kids fail?” she wrote.
“Teachers cannot teach both virtual and in person with full classes. The current situation and options are totally unacceptable even by the low bar set by the county and state.”
She also said, “I personally know 4 infected families and a very ill infected teacher who is believed to have spread COVID to at least 1 confirmed student who then infected her family. This is first hand. Not a rumor I heard.
“I don’t understand why an emergency board meeting has been blocked by your leadership, but it feels like an abdication of duty not to address this. If it’s true that one board member is blocking action, it’s time for new leadership.”
Along with Wirth, Jason Olive, a parent and architect, also is joining the CUSD Governing Board this month.
The two men are replacing Karen McGee and David Evans – who often teamed up with Mozdzen to make majority decisions that overrode the concerns of Bruner and Love.
Yet it is not known how Wirth or Olive might vote on future matters involving school closures or virtual instruction. Wirth has previously said he felt CUSD was doing an “adequate” job handling the pandemic and Olive thought the district’s initial response “was not as good as it could have been.”
Bruner has openly encouraged the public to contact Wirth and Olive with their pandemic concerns, apparently hoping their arrival will dramatically shift the district’s pandemic approach.