Scottsdale Unified Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel

Scottsdale Unified Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel discusses his proposed changes for the spring semester.

Scottsdale Unified School District modified its learning models for both in-person and online students in the second semester.

The changes were made to make the models more “sustainable” over the course of the spring semester, Assistant Superintendent Kim Guerin told the Governing Board Nov. 4.

“We’re looking at the models we have, what we can take and build off of and improve to get us through into January,’ Guerin said.

“So, by seeking some conceptual approval from our stakeholders and principals, we were able to poke holes in some of our ideas, vet them out, find the strengths, find the challenges and bring those ideas forward.”

That committee included parents, teachers, staff and administrators.

For elementary students, the district will still offer full-day in-person learning five days a week as it does now.

The district is also offering a “right to return” to their school next year to all families that remain in distance learning for the second semester, including families with students open-enrolled at their school.

At the elementary level, the biggest change is coming for families who chose not to return in person.

The district is getting rid of the Scottsdale Online option for most elementary students, though Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel said the district could allow some families to remain on a case-by-case basis if needed.

But most elementary learning virtually will move to a unified enhanced distance learning model administered out of Echo Canyon School.

Under that model, students will receive a full day of instruction from an SUSD teacher, including most typical special courses.

Currently in some schools, teachers are in a classroom full of students while simultaneously teaching students at home through cameras. Other schools at some grade levels dedicate a teacher to solely teach students online.

This current school-by-school model is unsustainable, Guerin said, noting that teachers “are just trying so hard to meet the needs of both” in-person and at-home students at the kindergarten to fifth grade level. 

“And in some cases, it is working, but in other cases, it’s really a struggle,” she said.

The only exceptions to the second semester EDL plan will be for students enrolled in specialty programs like the dual- language programs or the traditional school models.

“We’ll looking at those and those roles most likely have in-person students and EDL students being streamed in the (same) class,” Guerin said.

Middle and high school students will notice even more drastic changes in the second semester, including the start of full-day learning for in-class students.

Currently, students attending classes in-person are on a modified 2/3-day schedule in order to limit passing periods and other high-contact moments.

The new plan will see attend class for a full day with the exception of a half day on Wednesdays for teacher development.

Students in the enhanced distance learning model will no longer have dedicated one-on-one time with a teacher. Instead, they will live-stream all high school and middle school classes.

Earlier this year, the Governing Board approved nearly $1 million to purchase cameras to allow for classroom streaming.

On Nov. 4, the board approved spending $770,721 for 660 more cameras. 

Those cameras will also be used at all levels to provide instruction for students required to quarantine.

Middle and high school students will still be able to enroll in Scottsdale Online.

But the online school – which has been available for 6th grade and above for a decade – will revert back to scheduling used prior to the pandemic.

Scottsdale Online students will take three courses every nine weeks.

“Students find it very difficult to handle six intense online classes at one time,” Guerin said, adding the success rate is higher with the new program.

While the district is confident that the second semester changes will improve the learning experience for students and teachers, the new models also have potential drawbacks.

For instance, an influx of in-person students could make it impossible to maintain 3-feet of distance between students in classrooms at all levels.

Additionally, by returning middle and high school students to all-day instruction, the district said there will be increased crowding at lunch time and during passing periods, especially at schools like Desert Mountain and Chaparral high schools that have over 2,000 students.

“Lunch and increased passing periods may increase the number of students required to quarantine as mitigation strategies become more challenging,” the district administration told the board.

The changes come as COVID-19 case numbers are rising in Scottsdale and throughout the state.

Scottsdale Unified’s case numbers have risen, according to data posted last Thursday by the county health department.

The data, which are 12 days old, shows the district has had over 100 cases per 100,000 residents for two straight weeks, putting it in the substantial virus spread category.

Of the 15 ZIP codes where most SUSD students live, six have had over 100 cases per 100,000 people for two straight weeks. Another seven ZIP codes are on the verge of flipping to red.

Still, the other two metrics – percent positivity and covid-like illness – remain in the moderate or minimum spread levels in most ZIP codes.

According to updated guidelines, if all three benchmarks reach substantial spread, a district should consider closing schools.

State schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman warned last week that schools could be forced to close due to rising case numbers.

“Without serious changes from us, the adults making daily choices that determine the virus’ path, we cannot expect these numbers to head in a safe direction,’’ Kathy Hoffman said.

Still, the metrics are unlikely to cause the closure of SUSD schools any time soon.

“The health department told us today on our call that they don’t envision a scenario where we’re all in red,” Menzel said last week.

Menzel said the district was in constant contact with county health officials to discuss options and issues even before metrics went red in any ZIP code.

If trends are worrying a specific community, the decision to close a school would be made on a case-by-case basis in with consultation with the county.

“If I have no cases at Anasazi (Elementary), and I have 35 cases in another building and we’ve got evidence of spread in the building, I won’t be recommending to close Anasazi,” Menzel said. “I’m going to focus on the building where the particular issue is.”

Menzel said he does not want to close down a school prematurely, because it is very difficult to open back up again.

He cited Chaparral, where case numbers are way down, as a successful example of this approach.

“People are responding to the requests that we’ve made – at least this is my take from what we’re seeing – to act in ways that help reduce transmission of COVID,” he said

According to the district’s dashboard, there were three active cases among students and staff at Chaparral as of Nov. 5.

In order to help communication with the county, the district approved the creation of a Covid specialist position.

That person will be responsible for “quarterbacking” the effort to track cases among students and staff and staying in contact with the county.

The board approved the position on a 12-month contract with annual pay between $70,719 and $94,133.

Menzel said the position was likely temporary but needed in the current environment.