Scottsdale Unified School District has adopted a plan to offer in-person and online options for the next school year that start Aug. 10 – but students will not be allowed on campus before Sept. 8.
The district administration recommended the post-Labor Day in-person start date even though Gov. Doug Ducey allows campuses to open as early as Aug. 17.
“While we know that the governor has at the present time said August 17 is the date we can return in person, we still have some concerns,” Superintendent Scott Menzel said.
At a board meeting on July 7, Asisstant Superintendent Kim Guerin said she expected Ducey to push that date back.
“Our staff have expressed a lot of anxiety about returning too quickly, and we believe, just like some of our neighbors have already done, that by setting the date as the day after Labor Day if we’re permitted to do so provides a broader window,” Menzel said.
The start date is not set in stone, though, and could change based on the actual conditions surrounding the covid-19 pandemic in Arizona and the guidance the district receives – hopefully – from public health officials.
“The board always has the ability to consider a different plan if there are conditions in Scottsdale that warrant reviewing it,” Menzel said.
“My hope is that we don’t have to get to that point,” he added, “because we need clarity from the public health officials to be able to take this and make the determination on when it’s safe to return.”
Menzel and SUSD still wanted to provide some clarity for families heading into the new school year, so classes will begin for all students on Aug. 10.
What those classes look like will differ based on the option a family chooses.
Families that choose traditional in-person classes will start off with what the district called “enhanced distance learning” – a more developed version of what the district adopted in the fourth quarter last school year.
According to Guerin, that distance learning will differ than the online option chosen by other families and will include student interaction with their specific teacher and classmates online.
There also will be some consistency in grading, expectations and standards across grade levels.
Board Vice President Patty Beckman said a lack of consistency between classrooms caused issues for some families at the end of last year.
In April, the Progress reported that some parents felt frustrated by a lack of clarity on expectations for students during distance learning and little consistency between classrooms in the same grade levels in terms of grading and expectations.
This year, students in distance learning will then transition to classrooms with enhanced cleaning and safety protocols when the state and district determine it is safe.
The district is also offering an online option for families through its existing Scottsdale Online platform.
The platform previously only served middle and high school students, but is being expanded for students as young as kindergarten.
Some educators have questioned the efficacy of an online curriculum for younger students.
“I don’t know how we could deliver anything that meets all of our students’ needs online,” said Scottsdale Education Association President Becky Williams, who teaches kindergarten.
The Governing Board approved the purchase of an eLearning Management System from Florida Virtual Global on July 9 to facilitate the expansion.
Students enrolled in the online option will begin in Scottsdale Online immediately on Aug. 10.
As recently as July 7, the district was prepared to offer a third hybrid option for all grade levels – with different programs offered to elementary students and middle/high school students – that would see students split time between classrooms and home.
But the district scuttled the plan, citing difficulties incorporating the plan into its master class scheduling and equity issues.
“The practicality of implementing it, and all of the complexities associated with implementing it and meeting our quality standards have led us to a decision that it actually doesn’t make sense to move forward with that as an option at this time,” Menzel said.
Ultimately, the hybrid model was not terribly popular among parents and students who responded to a survey in mid June. The model was favored by 35 percent of parents and 34 percent of students.
Hybrid was more popular with teachers, with 51 percent support
There was also a split between families and teachers when it came to returning to physical campuses.
Based on the survey results, the district expects about 20 percent of families to choose the online option.
While a large majority of parents (56 percent) and students (60 percent) supported the idea, only 42 percent of teachers agreed with coming back to school.
One reason for that disparity could be the ongoing safety question.
A statewide survey of teachers by the Arizona Education Association found a majority do not think schools can open safely in the current environment.
According to the survey, 73 percent of teachers said there are not enough staff and resources for school cleaning, food service, and bus schedules. Additionally, 72 percent said there are not enough teachers to reopen schools following social distance guidelines.
Menzel said teachers with health conditions will get priority placement in the online program. Second priority will go to those with at-risk family members.
Safety protocols planned
The district acknowledged that bringing kids back into schools will pose a significant safety hurdle as staff will have to sanitize millions of square feet of across the district regularly.
The schools, classrooms and other facilities will be undergoing “enhanced cleaning rotations” on a regular basis.
“The cleaning is going to have to be all-hands-on deck,” said Facilities Director Dennis Roehler. “Everyone is going to have to participate in some way, shape or form to help keep their own personal space a little cleaner.”
All individuals over 2 years old will be required to wear a mask on campus.
“All people on Scottsdale Unified properties will follow these orders by wearing a face mask/covering that covers the nose and the mouth, as outlined in the County’s regulation,” SUSD spokeswoman Amy Bolton said.
The district ordered a significant amount of protective equipment, including 60,000 paper masks that will be provided to staff and students on an as-needed basis, Roehler said.
The district also purchased 1,200 Plexiglas face shields and is building Plexiglas barriers for workstations.
Roehler said the district will also emphasize social distancing but acknowledged maintaining six feet will not always be feasible for students.
For instance, Roehler said it is unlikely students will maintain those distances on playgrounds or in crowded high school corridors – though the district noted campuses will be less crowded if 20 percent of students opt for online learning.
The question of how to actually fit students in a classroom also posed a problem.
The district is operating under a plan to set up desks three feet apart in classrooms to make sure it can fit all students, though six feet of social distancing will still be emphasized for adults in other situations.
The district will also have cleaning kits provided to every classroom that include a peroxide-based cleaner, additional hand washing stations throughout all schools, and signage encouraging recommended distancing and hygiene.
“Even though we don’t really believe that social distancing is going to be that end goal, we’re going to still try and get it so that people understand that is important,” Roehler said.
SUSD will also be taking new precautions during lunchtime by spacing out lunch times and not allowing students to sit directly across from each other or congregate in large crowds at tables.
Technical issues remain
Beyond cleaning issues, the district – and others throughout the state – faces other hurdles – including equal access to technology. That poses questions of equity as it relates to students without access to computers or the internet.
The district announced it would have a completely 1:1 student to computer ratio, meaning every student would be provided a Chromebook or similar laptop.
The district handed out thousands of Chromebooks during the previous shutdown and ordered more to reach the 1:1 ratio. The new Chromebooks should arrive by July 28, well before classes start.
That still leaves the question of internet access, though.
During the fourth quarter of last year, the district was able to hand out wifi hotspots to families that needed them.
There is also the possibility the district could make some on-campus computer labs available if it is allowed under state law.
Menzel said he should know within two weeks if the district will be able to provide computer labs.
Other unknowns remain
The district is also working on plans to support the social and emotional health of students and staff, including partnering with community organizations to support staff.
Teachers will undergo additional training to incorporate social-emotional learning techniques into the classroom,
District staff is also recommending putting mental health teams on all campuses.
But even with a plan in place, there are still plenty of unknowns for the district and families that must be worked out before the school year starts.
That includes how the district will handle grading and assessments.
Guerin said conversations are ongoing on those topics but the district plans to roll out consistent guidance for teachers for distance learning and when students return to schools.
Guerin said the district will roll out assessments early on to determine where students fell behind during campus shutdowns and how it can support teachers to help close those gaps.
“We think we’re going to have to have a laser-like focus on what’s most important that first month…we want to really prioritize and go deep and ensure that students absolutely are successful and can move forward with the standards,” Guerin said.
She indicated there could also be some flexibility in grading or retaking of tests during distance learning.
There are also many open questions as to how the district will meet the needs of special education students, many of whom are on legally binding plans that require in-person instruction and therapy.
Until campuses are reopened, Guerin said, teachers and staff will use using available technologies to provide therapy and classes online.
Still, she acknowledged that meeting the needs of all students will be a struggle.
“We will do everything we can to provide services at home, but if you are a student who sees an occupational therapist and receive physical therapy, that’s not something that is optimal online, but we have to be honest and transparent about what we can and can’t make work for each model…” Guerin said.
Another question that needs to be answered is how the district will react if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.
As recently as July 7, Menzel said, state and county health officials were still developing guidance, though the district is developing its own contingency plan as well.
On July 9, the district received a bit more clarity as county said it is recommending districts not close schools if there is a positive case.
The county is requesting that schools report two or more confirmed cases among students or staff and that schools have policies for self-reporting
According to the county, students or staff will be excluded from school for 10 days after their last positive test and 72 hours after showing no symptoms or fever. Those with family members who test positive will not be allowed to return for 14 days after exposure.
Some district officials were critical of the lack of direction.
“For the most leaders have passed the buck to us to make decisions that really are not in our realm of expertise, and are not decisions that we should really be making,” board member Jann-Michael Greenburg said.
Ducey said last week that he would not be influenced by politics as he determines when to allow schools to open.
“We’re not going to play politics…we’re going to do what’s in the best interest of the State of Arizona,” Ducey said.
Next steps outlined
For parents, the next step in the reopening process will be choosing whether they want their children to start the school year in Scottsdale Online or eventually return in-person.
Menzel said a survey will go out to parents this week requesting they make that choice by Friday. The district will also provide information on how special programs throughout the district, such as IB or dual enrollment, will fit into those options.
Families that choose Scottsdale Online are asked to commit to that choice for at least one semester to avoid unexpectedly overcrowding classrooms, Guerin said.
Guerin said the district will make every effort to contact families who do not respond to the survey, but that those who do not make a selection will be enrolled in the in-person plan.