Perhaps the most significant announcement Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman will ever make was expected this weekend as she rolls out guidelines for reopening schools this August.
But those guidelines, which Hoffman was expected to release May 30 – after the Progress’ deadline – will only be the beginning of a difficult task for Scottsdale Unified and other districts as they peer into a murky future that’s only about eight weeks away.
Even before report cards were finished and virtual graduations conducted, incoming Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel and Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard “have discussed the planning that is needed and have agreed on a process,” said SUSD spokeswoman Amy Bolton.
The two men took suggestions to the district’s Incident Command Team on May 15 for their input, she said.
The team, a pre-defined group of leaders that works in a National Incident Management System set-up to manage emergencies, pre-dates the current pandemic but is charged with planning, responding, recovering and preventing emergencies – such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mirroring what is happening in most school districts across Arizona, Kriekard and Menzel have created three subcommittees that already are at work addressing an array of issues related to the 2020-21 school year.
They include subcommittees for teaching and learning, chaired by Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Guerin; operations and logistics, chaired by Dennis Roehler; and social/emotional needs, chaired by Shannon Cronn.
In turn, Cronn’s and Guerin’s subcommittees are enlisting teachers, parents, administrators and students to help in brainstorming strategies and “identifying various possible scenarios and as many possible issues to be resolved,” Bolton said,
And, they will be waiting for what Gov. Doug Ducey and Hoffman will be rolling out as guidelines.
President Trump has said schools should reopen and Ducey last week said schools would reopen on time and that school sports could resume, though the Arizona Interscholastic Association issued a long list of recommendations for student athletes and coaches to follow as football practice is set to begin soon.
And while Ducey said “we need parents and teachers and superintendents to be prepared” for reopening schools, districts are confronting see a myriad of complex – and expensive – issues impacting them.
Districts already are developing scenarios that include a hybrid that might have some students in classes and others learning at home as well as complete distance learning for all in case another round of campus closures occurs.
The guidelines Hoffman and Ducey will be only that.
During a meeting last Tuesday between some superintendents and Ducey and Hoffman, the governor “was very, very clear to say that Arizona has guidelines and the state superintendent says that we will have guidelines. Those are not mandates,” Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis told her governing board.
“I was sitting next to the superintendent the Navajo Nation. He has a very different problem to solve than we do. So we have to the statewide plan has to be nimble,” said Fourlis, one of 89 school officials from across the state who were asked to weigh in on the state’s plans.
The issues districts confront 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 Fourlis called “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.
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.
School officials also will confront financial issues since they receive millions of dollars from sales tax revenue, which has been in freefall as a result of business closures. Bolton could not give an estimate of that revenue for SUSD but it is in the millions, given figures supplied by districts of comparable size to Scottsdale.
Although the Trump Administration had shelved a 62-page set of guidelines created by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reopening the country, the voluminous document was leaked.
It contained 19 specific recommendations – not rules - for reopening schools that AASA, The Superintendents Association, urged school districts should follow.
Those recommendations include spacing desk 6 feet apart, canceling field trips and limited extracurricular activities, repeated emphasis on washing hands and related hygiene practices, canceling most work gatherings, staggering the use of cafeterias and other gathering places like playgrounds so they can be disinfected after every use, staggering arrival and dropoff times and even locations, assigning supplies like crayons and pens to individual students and restricting visits from parents or other nonessential people.
Districts are closely examining every inch of space for the possibility that libraries, multipurpose rooms and other areas on campus will be turned into classrooms so desks can be kept sufficiently apart from each other.
Bolton said that issued “will be addressed in the appropriate subcommittee.”
Districts also will be examining the most efficient and effective way to achieve a high and frequent level of disinfecting – posing another new expense.
But even as that all goes on, school officials have an even bigger worry: who will even come to school if campuses reopen?
The question involves both teachers and students.
Scottsdale Unified and most other districts are surveying teaching staff to see who plans to return to the classroom when school begins.
While available data suggests the spread of the virus among children may be low, the data is mixed on the frequency of child-to-adult transfers.
Even without children, however, interactions among school staff could pose a concern for at least some school employees, particularly those who are older.
Some districts report that given the number of teachers who have signed contracts for the new school year after the pandemic broke, staffing does not appear to be a problem.
Then there are worries about how many parents might not want to send their children to school – a prospect with major financial implications because the bulk of school districts’ state funding is based on enrollment.
Those concerns run the gamut: Some may have elderly family members in the household and might fear their child will inadvertently infect them. Some parents of special-needs children might fear for their kids’ safety.
Then there are parents who may fear that a second wave of the virus will force another round of closures and decide to simply hold off sending their kids back until they see what happens.
Bolton said Scottsdale Unified just completed a parent survey on Friday and officials are awaiting the results.
The Arizona Board of Education earlier this month acknowledged 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.
Scottsdale Unified has no worry on that score. Bolton said the district is already certified for provide K-12 online instruction.
Scottsdale Unified and other 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 and protective measures will be needed.
During a 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 for sanitizing available yet.
His organization also asked its members to “work with their school leadership to issue a statement to parents about cleanliness on their school buses” since parental confidence in hygiene is important to maintain.
In that same webinar, Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services, said that buses are not designed for social distancing.
Hence, Hood asserted, 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.
Governing boards in Scottsdale and 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. Scottsdale Unified expects roughly $1.8 million.
But not all of that money may go toward Scottsdale Unified.
There’s a national controversy over that money after U.S. Education Secretary Betsy Devos advised that private schools – those that charge tuition – must share in those funds.
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.
Asked if any private schools have put their hand out, Bolton said, “We are expecting them to ask.”
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 the Progress. “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.”
The backlash against Devos’ plan, however, is growing among both Democrats and Republicans.
Indiana’s Republican state superintendent of education already has declared she state will ignore Devos’ directive.
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. “I think that’s what most of Congress was expecting.”
According to the website 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.”
Two weeks ago, Devos seemed to be backing down a bit, saying districts could provide services rather than dollars.
But last week she sounded a more determined view.
Last week, The Hill 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.”
Last Friday, Devos said she would issue a rule that making her guidance mandatory and “resolve any issues in plenty of time for the next school year.”