School corridor interior. 3d illustration

As Scottsdale Unified School District continues to navigate the pandemic, Governing Board candidates have differing opinions of the district’s Return to Learn plan.

The plan essentially gave families two choices for their students to resume classes when the new school year began in August.

Parents could either enroll their children in Scottsdale Online, an expansion of the district’s existing online-only offering, or choose the enhanced distance learning model, which allows those students to connect with teachers online before eventually returning to the classroom.

When those schools will reopen is still unclear.

Polled by the Progress, the majority of candidates approved of the district’s actions – but others said it is time to reopen schools for in-person learning immediately.

Six candidates are running for three open seats in the Nov. 3 election and the winners will likely have to address pandemic-related issues when they take office in January.

Candidate Rose Smith said she approved of the current board’s decision to adopt the state and county health departments’ COVID-19 benchmarks as a guide for reopening, saying it “ensures that data is driving the opening in a way that is safe for our students and staff.”

“It also ensures that we are prepared each step of the way to make sure our sanitation and mitigation protocols are adequate and effective,” Smith said.

Zachary Lindsay said student safety and well-being are top priorities.

“It is common practice for districts to follow the guidance from the Arizona Department of Health…I know the district has worked tirelessly to find possible solutions, while ensuring the health and wellbeing of all stakeholders,” Lindsay said. “This is not an easy task, especially with so many opposing viewpoints.”

Smith said she hoped a measured approach to reopening would help the district avoid having to close schools again in the future.

Candidate Kate Angelos said she found conflicts in the district’s plan, specifically between sections on social emotional learning and the logistics and operations plan.

“SEL concludes students need to interact with each other and their teachers in order to maintain social, emotional and psychological balance,” Angelos said. “Logistics and Operations will implement social distancing and wearing masks all day.”

Other candidates said the board and administration are in the difficult position of balancing student and staff safety with educational concerns.

“Like every school district, SUSD is in the unenviable position of making real-time decisions guided by trailing indicator data while sorting through confusing messaging,” candidate Libby Hart-Wells said. 

“I applaud the earnest and sincere efforts to focus on the educational welfare of students in the Return to Learn plan.”

Hart-Wells said the district is fortunate “to have a parental and extended community that shares that focus.”  

Julie Cieniawski, a former longtime SUSD teacher, said she understood some parents’ desire to return students to the classroom but that following medical guidelines is the best way to ensure student and community health.

“Our children thrive when provided a learning environment which supports the cognitive and affective domains of students,” Cieniawski said.

 “Qualified school staff provide learning opportunities beyond curriculum and many cannot be replicated easily through virtual learning…Nobody wants students back in the classroom more than teachers, when safe.”

Both Angelos and Lucy DiGrazia advocated for schools to reopen, contending  that recent data released by the Centers for Disease Control significantly revised downward the number of people who have died nationwide from COVID-19.

Medical experts have challenged those claims, circulated by social media recently, including Twitter posts by President Trump.

“As of (Sept. 1) the CDC has confirmed that 94 percent of reported COVID deaths were false and not COVID-related, meaning only 6 percent of all deaths were actual COVID deaths,” DiGrazia said. 

A 6 percent death rate of a population does not equal a pandemic,” DiGrazia continued. “With this truth now in the light there is no reason for return to learn or any extended closure of schools.”

“Given the CDC, Sept. 1, 2020 update, only 6 percent of the deaths were directly caused by COVID-19,” Angelos said. “Why inflict extreme measures to further traumatize students? If all schools are to open, then all students should be attending.”

DiGrazia said schools should be reopened immediately and teachers who refuse to return “should be dismissed with no compensation.”

The CDC on Aug. 26 reported that “for 6 percent of the deaths of the roughly 180,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned” on death certificates.

But that does not mean only 6 percent of those deaths were actually caused by COVID-19, according to health officials.

It means that 94 percent of people who died from the virus had additional health issues, or comorbidities, like diabetes, obesity, sepsis or dementia.

“The point that the CDC was trying to make was that a certain percentage of them had nothing else but just COVID,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told Good Morning America. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19; they did.”

Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Nasia Safdar, an infectious-disease professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told the Washington Post that these health conditions can make individuals more likely to die from COVID-19 but that the virus is still the cause of death.

“We know that most people with COVID have some other underlying condition, which increases their risk of dying from COVID and getting COVID in the first place,” Safdar told the Post.

Fauci also said “that does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of COVID didn’t die of COVID-19; they did…It’s not 9,000 deaths from COVID-19; it’s 180,000-plus deaths.”