As COVID-19 surges, CUSD returns to in-class teaching again - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

As COVID-19 surges, CUSD returns to in-class teaching again

January 17th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
As COVID-19 surges, CUSD returns  to in-class teaching again

By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

After a tumultuous couple of weeks, the Chandler Unified School District has changed course once again by allowing its campuses to reopen Jan. 19 and offer in-person learning.
All the district’s 42 schools temporarily closed for the first two weeks of the spring semester in response to a substantial spread of COVID-19 in the community that continues unabated.
But CUSD officials last week decided they can safely reopen classroom instruction by continuing to require masks and social distancing.
The Jan. 13 decision was met with a mix of joy and resentment among the community, which has been split over opening campuses while rates for COVID-19 infections remain high.
As of Jan. 14, the county’s health data showed CUSD had a COVID-19 positivity rate of 21.2 percent – a rise from the 17 percent the week before – and 791 cases per 100,000 people – an increase from 560 the previous week.
All three benchmarks for virus spread in the district have been at the “substantial” level for a month.
While some students and parents fear coming back to school, others are relieved to see CUSD move back to classroom learning.
Ella Choy, a sophomore at Casteel High, said she hoped schools would reopen because she has seen how campus closures have severely affected the mental health of her classmates.
“It’s very important for us to be back in school and make those connections with our peers,” Choy said.
The Governing Board’s 3-2 vote to reopen classrooms – with Lara Bruner and Lindsay Love opposing – forces Chandler’s 44,000 students to choose between two in-class instruction or the Chandler Online Academy.
But several parents complained that the Online Academy had a waiting list while others complained that the online platform is ineffective and lacks advanced courses for students.
District administrators say the waiting list was a temporary measure put in place over the holiday break while staff was reassigned and logistics were figured out.
But some district leaders are not pleased that the online academy is the district’s only alternative to in-class instruction.
Love said she was disappointed CUSD had still not come up with a viable virtual option for students who don’t want to enroll in the online academy.
“The community has been asking for it and I feel like we’ve had almost a year to work through some of those barriers,” Love said. “I was hoping after a year we would have something to offer families aside from these two options.”
Bruner objected to the stress that Chandler’s in-class learning puts on teachers due to all the quarantined students they have to track online.
The district requires students and staff to quarantine at home for two weeks after coming into contact with someone infected with COVID-19. Teachers are expected to check in with quarantined students and include them in classroom activities through video applications.
But Bruner said the number of CUSD students who have already quarantined – which has exceeded 1,800 – has made this teaching model inefficient for both parties.
“We have hundreds of quarantined students at the high schools and it’s unfair to the students to not have access to education during those 14 days,” Bruner said earlier this month. “But at the same time, it’s unfair to the teachers to try to do a hybrid model when they don’t have the technology to do it.”
During the two-week hiatus CUSD took at the start of this semester, students were instructed to learn virtually by connecting with their teachers online through Google Classrooms.
But the district said this modality – which many parents hoped would remain in place – has made it increasingly difficult to keep track of enrollment and student engagement. Teachers have not been able to connect with at least 2,000 students over the last two weeks, according to CUSD.
The school board decided on Jan. 4 to implement the two-week virtual modality after observing videos of high school students holding large gatherings over the holiday break – including a massive New Year’s Eve party at a Gilbert home where hundreds of young people, mostly mask-less, had gathered.
.The sudden decision angered many parents, but the board considered it a quick remedy to curb virus spread after the holidays.
“The lack of regard for other individuals is very, very concerning,” said Board President Barbara Mozdzen on Jan. 4. “I am very discouraged with our whole community. It makes our jobs so much more difficult.”
Mozdzen said the behavior exhibited in the party videos could be causing virus cases to rise and was forcing the district to be extra cautious.
“I am extremely disappointed that we have large parties in the community and that our community is not mitigating the spread so we can keep our kids in school,” she added.
Though Mozdzen has routinely favored keeping schools open for in-person teaching, she voted on Jan. 4 with Love and Jason Olive to trigger the two-week closure.
Love, who has regularly pushes for more virtual learning options during the pandemic, said she worried the two-week period would not be long enough to prevent a spike in new cases.
That New Year’s Eve party was a “slap in the face” to all of the district’s teachers, Love said, and it was “disgusting” behavior that could have major impacts on the district’s operations.
“I don’t really think our community is taking this seriously,” she added.
The two-week closure was a disappointment to local parents like Armando Spataro, who worried over how virtual learning would be harmful to his children and questioned the board’s decision considering the low infection rates seen across Arizona’s schools.
“I feel the districts will look back and see a trail of collateral damage created by denying our children their place in school,” Spataro said.
As of Jan. 14, CUSD reported 29 active cases of the virus among its 49,800 staff and students. The district has had another 858 cases get resolved after the infected individual was deemed safe to return to campus.
CUSD has had an additional 760 cases of students contracting the virus while off campus – data previously not reported until this month.
The board on Jan. 4 also revised its thresholds that would initiate a temporary school closure.
The board has lowered the thresholds to 1.5 percent of an elementary campus’ population, 1 percent for junior high schools, and .75 percent for high schools.
Some district teachers still have concerns about returning to in-person instruction.
Christine Diaz, a Willis Junior High teacher, said the in-person experience has been chaotic because so many of her school’s students have had to self-quarantine.
“On any given day, upwards to 50 students were quarantined,” she said. “I personally had three students who were quarantined two or three times.”
Katie Nash, another CUSD teacher, believes students are safest at home and highlighted how many of the district’s employees have already lost family members to the coronavirus.
“Numerous staff members are not even able to attend funeral services for loved ones who have passed away from COVID-19,” Nash said. “Simply put: staff are afraid.”
Gov. Doug Ducey last week weighed into the long-running, statewide feud over open campuses in his annual State of the State address, saying he will not provide any additional cash to public schools with fewer children in classrooms due to the pandemic. Instead, the governor said he wants to get students “back where they belong.’’
“With every public health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in schools, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,’’ he said. “Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.’’
After the speech, press aide C.J. Karamargin said his boss is not considering cutting off funds to schools that instruct students either in whole or in part online. He said Ducey supports virtual options for parents who want them.
“When he references not funding ‘empty seats,’ he simply means that for parents who have chosen a new option for their kids, the money will follow that will follow that student to their new public school,’’ Karamargin said, options that include other traditional districts as well as charter schools.