Kindergarten teacher Alison Bidar

Kindergarten teacher Alison Bidar leads students into school on the first day of in-person classes at Navajo Elementary on Sept. 21.

As Scottsdale Unified prepares to welcome back middle and high school students, the district is juggling health and safety with delivering quality education to tens of thousands of students.

The district’s Return to Learn plan brought elementary students back to the classroom over two weeks last month and now will do the same for middle and high school students the week of Oct. 12.

Reopening at both levels has been complicated by a higher-than-anticipated number of parents who want their kids on campus.

Between 60 and 90 percent of families at each elementary school sent their children back even though a September survey showed only 50 percent would likely return.

There was a similar discrepancy at the middle and high school levels, where the district now expects 85 to 90 percent of students to return.

Surveys showed roughly half that could be expected before the district met “green” health metrics showing a minimal level of COVID-19 spread.

The district’s current “yellow,” or moderate, metrics indicate it is safe for a hybrid learning format with students alternating between distance and in-classroom learning on different days of the week.

Middle and high schools also have added complications not seen at the elementary level.

Unlike elementary students, who remain in one classroom with the same group for the entire day, older students travel between rooms for each class throughout the day on campuses packed with more students.

“In some cases, we have thousands of students on a secondary campus. Even at the middle school level, we could have 500, 600 or 700 students in one grade level,” Assistant Superintendent Kim Guerin told the Governing Board Sept. 29. “That is just so very different than in an elementary campus.”

Students pass by each other in hallways, increasing the potential for virus spread.

To mitigate the risk, the administration put a modified in-person schedule in place for middle and high school students that will limit passing periods.

Like elementary students, middle and high school students will return to class five days per week.

But unlike the younger students, they will not attend a full day of classes and will receive “grab and go lunches” before leaving campus.

Under the district’s plan for middle and high school, in-person students will attend classes for 2/3 of a typical day, attending three 73-minute classes.

Guerin said the limited classes will cut down on passing in the hallways.

“To manage these challenges, a shortened day mitigates risk,” Guerin said.

In some most cases, students remaining in at-home distance learning will be able to watch those live or recorded classes but not actively participate.

The at-home students will then have three 36-minute classes with one-on-one instruction from the same teachers in the afternoon.

The only exception to that schedule is at Cheyenne Traditional School, which serves students in kindergarten through 8th grade.

The district authorized a pilot program at Cheyenne that will have middle school students attend in-person classes on a traditional full-day schedule.

“We have authorized a pilot project at Cheyenne using the cameras to allow for in-person and EDL synchronous instruction for grades 6-8,” Superintendent Scott Menzel said. “Our goal is to learn what works, what doesn’t work, and what can be improved as we plan for the second semester.”

Menzel said the administration gauged interest in the pilot at SUSD’s other three K-8 schools but “they chose to continue with the current plan.”

The shortened day model for most middle and high schools has left some parents concerned that students learning at home will not receive the same quality of education as those on campus due to the discrepancy in class times for each model.

Guerin said that with so few students learning at home, the 36-minute sessions will be more one-on-one time for each student.

But board member Jann-Michael Greenburg attributed the unanticipated increase in in-person students to perceived shortcomings in the at-home model.

Stating “that it’s not just as if they’re changing their minds every two weeks,” he suggested the huge swing among parents toward in-class learning is “specifically because they feel that the EDL is just not going to be sufficient for their child.”

Parent Miesje Corbo said those concerns factored into her decision to send her four teenagers back to Chaparral High, but that she also wanted to do what was best for teachers.

“We wanted to make sure they were safe and that the decisions that the district was making were going to be in the best interests of folks who don’t actually necessarily have a choice about going back to work,” Corbo said.

But she said it wasn’t clear to her which model the bulk of teachers preferred and that she is concerned about the quality of the EDL model moving forward.

“I started getting concerned that if so many kids want EDL, 36 minutes really would be a problem,” Corbo said. “But the school couldn’t tell us how many of the teachers were coming back, how many were streaming or if they were even required to necessarily stream to the kids on EDL.

“And there’s so much confusion and lack of clarity around the difference between what was going to happen in person and what was going to happen at home.”

The unanticipated spike in students returning to classrooms has led to class size concerns at some schools.

Menzel told the board some elementary classrooms could have up to 28 students.

Even in those larger classrooms, the district said it will be able to keep at least three feet of distance between students in classrooms at all times.

Even before it knew 90 percent or more of students would return to some schools, the district said keeping six feet of distance between students was not possible.

Menzel noted that a 6-foot rule between students was “a recommendation, not a requirement” from state health officials.

Navajo Elementary, which has larger than normal classrooms, has been able to keep more than 3 feet between students despite seeing around 90 percent of students return.

“The one (kindergarten) room we’re almost at 6 feet, but we’re well over 4 feet in every one of them,” Principal Matthew Patzlaff said.

Staffing has also been an issue at SUSD and throughout the state as some teachers have resigned rather than return to classrooms.

At Cheyenne Traditional, staffing issues prompted a backlash from some parents, including Republican state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who has children at the school.

A letter sent to Cheyenne parents on Sept. 22 stated that two in-person third grade classrooms will have teachers teaching remotely via live streaming while an aide remains physically in the classroom with students.

Ugenti-Rita called the situation “unacceptable” in a post on Facebook.

Ugenti-Rita has been a vocal critic in recent months, first criticizing SUSD for taking too long to reopen and then disparaging the rollout when the district brought elementary students back to the classroom.

“The reasonable expectation from parents…was that a physical teacher would be present in the classroom teaching and engaging the students,” Ugenti-Rita wrote. “SUSD needs to fix this immediately. They have a responsibility to provide children returning to in person learning with an in-person teacher ready and willing to teach the class.”

The post garnered over 200 comments, many of which criticized teachers.

An SUSD spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on her post.

But Becky Williams, president of the Scottsdale Education Association, decried Ugenti-Rita’s post as a divisive move made to “score cheap political points.”

Williams, a teacher at Mohave Middle School, said, “teachers are working harder than we ever have in our careers doing everything we can to be part of the solution to reach our students given the perimeters of the pandemic.”

Williams said some teachers have been granted remote teaching accommodations in limited circumstance if they have “qualifying ADA conditions” but otherwise must either return or resign.

“If teachers are not physically in their classrooms, it is not because they are choosing not to. It is because they have a health condition which would put them at greater risk if they were to contract Covid,” Williams said.

While SUSD navigates those challenges, individual schools are implementing safety plans to make a safe, clean environment.

A major component of the district’s safety plan is reminding families to keep their students home if they are ill or showing symptoms of Covid-19.

SUSD Facilities Director Dennis Roehler told the Governing Board that all schools will be outfitted with signs driving home that message and the district will also send home refrigerator magnets to parents with that reminder.

Thus far, SUSD has had three cases of Covid-19, according to its dashboard.

That includes one teacher at Cherokee Elementary and two students at Chaparral High.

The district is enforcing a mandatory mask policy like any other dress code violation, with potential suspensions for repeated non compliance.

Despite concerns that mask rule would be hard on younger children, Patzlaff said it has not been an issue thus far.

“The kids are keeping their masks on…they’re awesome about that,” Patzlaff said. “One thing that’s a little trickier is just reminding people of that social distancing and those particular areas where we are being mindful of our space and our routine.”

Laura Weeshoff, a parent of two young children at Desert Canyon Elementary, said, “My littlest wears her mask. She wants to put it on at home and wear it in the car or walking to school.”

Patzlaff said Navajo’s phased reopening went as well as could be expected but that the return was hardly business as usual.

On the first day of classes on Sept. 21, Patzlaff, teachers and staff met students at the school entrance and quickly herded them into their classroom units on the school’s basketball courts, where they remained masked and participated in distance-friendly activities games.

Teachers then shuttled their classes, one-by-one, into the buildings, which have been marked with taped arrows and other signage to encourage distancing.

Like other schools in the district, Navajo has several newly-installed hand washing stations throughout its campus and also spaced seating in its lunch room to host a maximum of two classes at a time. That approach maintains 6 feet of distance while enabling students to eat with masks off.

Patzlaff has made creative use of outdoor space to create “distanced” outdoor picnics for students.

At Desert Canyon Elementary, Weeshoff said she was impressed with the school’s operation since returning.

“I think they’re doing an amazing job; I think they were extra cautious,” said Weeshoff, who has a first grader in Desert Canyon’s Mandarin immersion program and child enrolled in preschool.

Administrators are stressing the need for high school students to learn the mask and social distancing rules before they come to class.

“I think it’s really important to teach kids the why behind why we need to do what we need to do and really that is to keep ourselves safe, keep our fellow students and staff safe and keep the school open,” said Coronado High School Principal Amy Palatucci,

“Everybody’s sharing the same message in class, teaching kids how to transition safely and follow all of those guidelines, remind them to keep your distance,” she said.