Students will begin returning to classrooms this month following a decision by the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board to approve a phased full reopening for all grade levels.
The plan, approved unanimously on Sept. 9, gives the green light for students’ return to campuses for the first time since schools were shut down in March at the onset of the pandemic.
The decision follows similar moves by Valley districts like Mesa, Chandler and nearby Cave Creek, which also voted to reopen schools over the next few weeks.
SUSD students in kindergarten through 2nd grade will return to classrooms on Sept. 21, followed by 3rd through 5th grades on Sept. 29.
Following the district’s fall break, middle and high school students will return to classrooms on Oct. 12.
District administration had already planned to bring special education and pre-K students back to campuses on Sept. 14.
The district will also continue to offer the distance learning option to families that wish to remain at home for the time being due to health issues or other concerns.
The decision to offer a full in-person return option to families came just a week after a Sept. 1 meeting where the Governing Board considered implementing a hybrid model that would have seen students come back to campuses just two days each week until the district met “green” benchmarks recommended by state health officials – and adopted by the Governing Board – that signal it is safe to fully reopen schools.
SUSD is currently in the “yellow” zone, according to those benchmarks and only qualified in the eyes of health officials to reopen on a hybrid basis. The benchmarks are voluntary.
As of Sept. 10, ZIP codes where SUSD students live had an average of 86 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 residents, a percent positivity rate of 5.3 percent and just 2 percent of area hospitalizations were for Covid-like symptoms.
The latter two metrics fall within the green zone, but the guidelines recommend that the district reach under 10 cases per 100,000 for two straight weeks to allow for five days in classrooms.
The numbers are not moving in the right direction.
Cases per 100,000 in SUSD ZIP codes jumped from 34 from Aug. 23-29 to 86 from Aug. 30-Sept. 5, according to data posted by Maricopa County last Thursday, the day after the board meeting.
Some of that jump can be attributed to a huge spike in cases in 85281, which that includes Arizona State University.
But, overall, eight of the district’s 15 ZIP codes saw both cases numbers and percent positivity rise week over week, according to the latest data available on the county’s dashboard.
That means the district is likely to remain in the yellow hybrid zone for the foreseeable future.
Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, Maricopa County’s medical director for disease control, told SUSD Superintendent Scott Menzel that it is unlikely the district will fall below 10 cases per 100,000 until there is a vaccine.
But the board two weeks ago directed Superintendent Scott Menzel to survey families to find out their opinion on several reopening options.
The survey, which had an overall response rate of 68 percent, found there was not much of an appetite for the two-day hybrid model, with only 25 percent of respondents preferring it.
The survey also showed a nearly even split between families willing to return to school immediately and those who would wait longer.
According to the survey, 50 percent of families wanted to return to school immediately while 30 percent preferred to waiting until schools met the “green” benchmarks for reopening.
Another 7 percent of families preferred to wait to reopen until a vaccine is available and 8 percent wanted to remain in distance learning for the rest of the year.
At the board meeting on Sept. 1, there was some concern that a full return for any grade level would violate the state health benchmarks adopted by the district, meaning the board would have to vote to repeal or modify those metrics before it could approve any full return.
But last week. 9, Menzel said that was not the case due to the results of the survey.
“So, it’s not bad news that our community is split,” Menzel said. “It actually opens up a new possibility for how we can proceed.”
Menzel told the board that the nearly even split allows the district to offer a full in-person return to families that want that.
Menzel told the board the new plan still technically qualifies as a hybrid under the adopted benchmarks, because a significant portion of families indicated they will remain at home.
“So based on the data, it appears as though we actually have a natural hybrid,” Menzel said.
He added, “We’re proposing to say we have half of our families ready to come back now, and we can actually get close to approximate the kind of hybrid that we were trying to get before we knew where our parents would land and that means that you have fewer students coming on campus every day.”
Still, Menzel acknowledged that the plan will not meet all of the recommendations in state and county guidelines.
Under the hybrid model, the state benchmarks state schools should implement physical distancing.
“It has parenthetically six feet, but again, that’s a recommendation, not a requirement,” Menzel said.
The district will also follow many of the state recommendations, including requiring face masks, canceling field trips and large gatherings and closing large communal spaces.
At previous meetings, district staff said it was more likely the district would be able to implement distancing of three feet in classrooms.
The district will also institute many safety measures seen at other districts reopening throughout the state.
Dennis Roehler, the district’s director of facilities, said that includes installing signage to encourage distancing on campus, installing 500 hand sanitizing stations throughout the district and providing cleaning supplies and protective equipment for staff and classrooms.
Menzel encourages anyone with symptoms of the virus to stay home and said signage will remind people to keep an eye out for those symptoms.
“So, you have a way to remember every day because what we need is for people to be extra cautious to look out for the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone in our learning community so that we can remain open,” he said.
The district also upgraded its air conditioning filters from MERV 8 to 13. Filters rated 13 or higher are efficient at capturing airborne viruses, according to ASHRAE, an industry group.
District administration will give more a detailed description of those measures at the next board meeting later this month.
The new model did receive support from at least one public health official.
Menzel said he spoke with Sunenshine, who called the phased return plan “genius.”
But both Menzel and the board acknowledged that implementing the new plan will be complicated and will require compromises by both families and school staff.
“Everybody’s going to sacrifice a little something,” Menzel said. “Not everybody’s going to get everything they want, but more kids are going to get what they need.”
For instance, each school will have to navigate complicated staffing issues and some students may have to switch teachers in order to maintain smaller class sizes.
“If there’s 30 kids in a class of third graders, they’re not going to have 15 just magically show up and 15 (stay home),” board Vice President Patty Beckman said. “We may have some classes that all 30 show up that day for a full return and eight show up in another classroom.”
There are also many unknowns when it comes to how the district will staff each school do to differing demand at each location.
Other districts, including neighboring Cave Creek, have had to cancel in-person returns at some schools because too many teachers did not to return to the classroom.
Menzel acknowledged staffing will be difficult but said the district already offered teachers with health issues and other concerns the opportunity to teach in Scottsdale Online, the district’s fully online offering.
“And we had spots that were still available for others who wanted to be in Scottsdale Online. So our belief was that the other teachers were prepared to return when we were prepared to return,” Menzel said.
But, he added, “Now, there are some who have expressed concern, some doubt, they want to wait longer. But at the end of the day, we have to be able to provide the educational services for our students.”
Even if the majority of teachers do return, each school will have to deal with unique situations to staff each grade level.
While overall 50 percent of families want to return now, that even split will likely not align perfectly at every school.
“While in the aggregate the numbers work really well, the numbers do vary by building,” Menzel said.
Menzel said there are no current plans to ask families to switch schools.
But that could mean some teachers will be asked to leave their current school temporarily to teach at a school with higher demand this year and teachers remaining in the distance learning model could teach students from multiple schools.
The district will also have to grapple with what to do if COVID-19 data rise within district boundaries or there is an outbreak on one of its campuses.
Menzel said the district’s response will be dictated by the specific case.
If there is an outbreak at a specific school, Maricopa County could recommend SUSD close a school or quarantine a specific classroom, he said.
If there are upward infection trends communitywide, the district could be forced to a wider shutdown.
That scenario could likely only play out if the district’s ZIP codes reached the “red” level in two or more of the state’s benchmarks for two straight weeks.