Scottsdale middle and high school students could return to full-day in-class learning after spring break next month but the plan has drawn criticism from some students and teachers.
Scottsdale Unified recently announced plans to begin full-day in-person learning at Mountainside Middle School tomorrow, Feb. 22, with the intent of expanding that schedule to all middle and high schools when students return March 15.
Currently, all district middle and high schools offer in-person and distance learning options with a 2/3-day modified schedule designed to eliminate lunch and other crowded periods.
Mountainside’s early adoption of the full-day schedule will function as a test pilot to help the district identify issues ahead of the wider roll-out, Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel told the Governing Board on Feb. 2.
In the weeks since that announcement, the plan has received some pushback.
Chaparral High School teacher Steve Geislinger told the board last week the district’s existing mitigation strategies, including the 2/3-day schedule, have prevented significant virus spread and kept classrooms open.
Full day "would undercut these mitigations tragically and vastly increase the potential factor of spread and, therefore, the likelihood of returning school to full virtual, among other consequences,” he said.
Geislinger said reinstating the lunch hour would make it difficult to contact trace exposure if a student is diagnosed with COVID-19.
Those concerns were echoed by members of the district’s student advisory board who addressed the Governing Board Feb. 16.
Board President Caroline Carter, a Chaparral High student, said a petition has already gathered over 1,000 signatures in favor of retaining the 2/3-day schedule.
According to Carter, a Desert Mountain High student cited CDC guidelines that support opening schools if masks are worn and students can stay 6 feet apart.
“With the school our size, this is not possible and therefore is not being safe,” she said.
Carter said students are also concerned that changing the existing schedule could negatively impact their preparation for final exams.
Menzel acknowledged that disruption of the schedule could be an issue and said the district would either adopt full-day to start the fourth quarter or not at all.
Menzel indicated he will bring to the board an official proposal on the return to full-day for middle and high schools at a future meeting.
He also explained the factors that led to the full-day recommendation, including the fact that all teachers and staff who wanted to receive a vaccine got their second dose earlier this month.
He also said infection rates in the community are decreasing each week.
Still, Menzel acknowledged that, even with teachers vaccinated, the district will need to remain vigilant with mitigation efforts like masking and social distancing, citing recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control on school reopenings.
But board member Dr. Libby Hart-Wells pointed out that the CDC guidance puts an emphasis on maintaining 6 feet of distance – something the district has admitted is not possible in classrooms.
It’s also not clear how the district will accomplish that goal during crowded lunch periods when students are unmasked.
Building administrators and district operations staff are still reviewing how to ensure 6 feet of distance during lunch.
“We are also consulting with other districts that are operating full-day schedules to see what we can learn from them about implementing lunchtime mitigation strategies,” a district statement said.
Hart-Wells and board member Julie Cieniawski also echoed student and staff concerns that reintroducing lunch would hurt already suspect data collection and contact tracing.
The plan for a full-day return did find some support on the board.
Board member Patty Beckman acknowledged the concerns about lunch but asked the district to consult with neighboring districts – like Mesa and Chandler – that have remained open with lunch despite having high schools with even larger student populations than Scottsdale’s.
She said there is a very real need to get students back into the classroom full-time, not just to combat learning loss but to address mental health issues.
“I was pretty overcome recently when I was informed along with the rest of the Governing Board that the suicide attempt rate in our district has risen,” she said.
“I think we need to say that, as distasteful as it is, many of our students are feeling lost, disconnected, and are concerned about their future,” she said.
The district said Beckman’s statement was based on anecdotal information from school counselors and it does not have student suicide data.
“That is almost impossible to track and difficult to confirm,” the statement said.
“We know the pandemic has been very stressful on our students and that is the reason why we place such importance on our social-emotional learning outreach efforts and monitoring of student engagement in their studies,” according to the statement.
Board member Zach Lindsay appeared to support a return to in-person learning as well, citing concerns about enrollment loss.
In SUSD, K-12 100th day enrollment dropped by 815 students this school year, much higher than the 60 students the district lost between 2019 and 2020.
That large drop this year could partially be attributed to families switching to other districts, charters or private schools or opting to home-school students during the pandemic.
But there is a real concern that some of the students simply dropped off the radar.
“We were running into that, hearing from the principals that they’ve gone out with the resource officers and tried to find these kids and the addresses aren’t valid addresses and the phone numbers don’t work anymore, so it’s really hard to find some of these kids,” Lindsay said.
There are academic concerns as well.
Overall, the course failure rate for high school students has risen from 5 percent in the 2019-20 school year to 9 percent this year.
The district has also seen a concerning trend among sixth graders, who are navigating their first year adjusting to middle school amidst the pandemic.
“In speaking with the counselors last week, they pointed out a very disturbing trend related to our sixth-grade students...we see two to three times as many students failing their classes,” Menzel said.
Hart-Wells, who has two daughters in the district, said she does not want to see a specific date set for the return and would the rather the district remain adaptable to changing conditions.
“I don’t want an arbitrary March X and then we’re dealing with this, because we can’t be,” she said.
Board President Jann-Michael Greenburg held off on supporting one plan or the other at the Feb. 16 meeting until the county issues new recommendations, echoing his long-held insistence that district needs to follow the recommendations of public health officials.
Menzel said that guidance is forthcoming.
But he said a draft of that plan he received leaves more wiggle room for the 6-foot rule and would not preclude the district from moving forward with its return to full-day, in-person learning at middle and high schools.
“It indicates that schools who have successfully implemented mitigation strategies with hybrid learning scenarios, without evidence of COVID-19 spread, can continue to operate using their current strategies as long as this includes wearing masks at all times and maintaining physical distancing of six feet or more to the greatest extent possible,” he said.