SUSD Curriculum Specialist Gidget R. Vongonten

SUSD Curriculum Specialist Gidget R. Vongonten provided technology supplies to parents at Chaparral High School on March 20.  

While statewide school shutdowns have caused unprecedented challenges for districts, families and teachers alike, Scottsdale Unified School District has been ahead of the curve as it works to provide online education for students.

When the district announced it would close schools on March 13, it immediately announced a transition to online learning to begin on March 23 – following a week or preparation and training for teachers and staff.

The move online at SUSD came at least a week ahead of many other districts around the state.

“The district has been first in rolling out online learning, and has worked to provide appropriate training,” said Kris Ambri, president of the Scottsdale Education Association and an 8th grade social studies teacher at Copper Ridge School. “The new online team has been incredibly helpful in answering questions and troubleshooting.”

Brittany Olson, whose 7-year-old son attends Navajo Elementary, praised efforts by the district and school to make the transition to home learning as seamless as possible.

“So far, our experience has been great,” Olson said.

Teachers have made themselves available to assist parents, many of whom are juggling working from home while also helping their children navigate the world of online learning.

Dr. Kim Guerin, assistant superintendent of education services, said individual teachers are setting up virtual “office hours” to assist parents but are also available outside of those times.

“The teachers have been very understanding, flexible, and available during this time,” Olson said. “They have reached out to parents and students with warmth and empathy during a strange time.”

“I could not be more impressed with all of the teachers with whom I’ve communicated,” Ambri said. “Everyone is putting in countless hours to learn this new way to educate; devising all new online lessons, activities, and finding multiple ways to keep in contact with their students.”

Most teachers sympathize with what parents are going through, because they’re dealing with a similar situation themselves.

Ambri said many teachers are now “home schooling” their own children while dedicating time to their students. 

Others have lost second jobs they took to supplement their income due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.

“We are people like everyone else living with the fear of this pandemic; but we continue to put our students first,” Ambri said. 

Scottsdale parents with students outside of SUSD have praised their teachers and administrators as well.

Resident Jamie Wong has three children at Great Hearts Archway Scottsdale.

Wong said that Archway, a traditional school, typically limits the use of technology, so the school is still in the process of transitioning online so students are relying on paper packets in the interim.

Wong, who has one child with dyslexia, said she and her husband both work full time and trade off teaching duties while also enlisting help from grandparents.

 She said teachers at the school have also been responsive to their needs.

“The (special education) teacher is in constant contact and has been caring. My daughter was struggling with an assignment and I couldn’t help, so her teacher immediately 'zoom meetinged' her and helped her,” Wong said.

Tammy Caputi, a candidate for Scottsdale City Council, has three children in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Caputi said she and her husband both full time and are now also juggling homeschooling their children, who are in the 4th, 8th and 10th grades.  

“Adapting to online learning overnight has not been easy,” Caputi said. “The PVUSD and our schools have been amazingly helpful with resources and support, but it’s almost impossible to maintain any kind of schedule.”

Caputi said she is worried about how the school closures will affect her children in the long run.

“The kids are trying, but they’re just not used to motivating themselves from home all day to keep up with their schoolwork,” Caputi said. “I am deeply concerned that they will be underprepared for next year.”

Statewide, educators are dealing with how to keep students from falling behind due to school closures and, in some cases, a lack of access to the resources needed to move online.

“It’s going to take from three to five years for kids to catch up,’’ said Armando Ruiz, a member of the state Board of Education. 

Ruiz was particularly focused on students in the lower grades -- and particularly from families who lack access to the internet. He figures that category could equal about 170,000 Arizona children who do not have access to remote learning.

SUSD has taken significant steps to provide access for all students to online courses – a challenge for many families throughout the state.

SUSD set up distribution centers at schools throughout the district to provide Chromebook computers and internet hotspots for students that do not have access to that technology in their homes.

The district later expanded that program to provide additional Chromebooks and hotspots for families with three or more students enrolled in the district.

SUSD’s IT Department has also provided expanded Help Desk hours from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. that can be accessed by calling 480-484-4357.

Access to physical course materials may be harder to come by, though, for students and families who need or prefer those materials.

Guerin said that the district has been focused on providing technology and internet access for all students who need it and that individual requests for physical materials “are considered on a case by case basis.”

Even if they have the technological resources in place, districts are still grappling with how to address the effect school closures have on families and the quality of education.

“This is going to be an ongoing challenge for our state,’’ Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of public instruction, said. ”There’s no easy solution to make it up.’’

While others are transitioning from generalized enrichment materials to grade-specific coursework in the coming weeks, SUSD is already providing grade-specific assignments for all students, Guerin said.

Olson, the Navajo Elementary mom, said the coursework for her son has been “engaging but not overwhelming.”

“I was nervous that the school work would add pressure to any already stressful situation,” Olson said. “However, the school has focused more on keeping students engaged than perfection and deadlines.”

There is also the question of how to keep older students, particularly those in high school, engaged with course work.

Coronado High School Principal Amy Palatucci posted a video to Facebook shortly after the school began online courses to encourage students to remain committed to their schooling and provide tips for success, such as maintaining a normal sleep schedule.

Guerin said that all teachers are monitoring student engagement.

“Site leaders and teachers are reaching out to students who have not engaged in online learning to offer support,” Guerin said.” Individual student and family situations will be considered related to assessing student performance.”

While teachers are monitoring engagement, participation in online learning should not stop high school seniors from graduating.

Without dissent, the state Board of Education adopted an emergency rule last week that bars school districts and charter schools from withholding academic credit or a diploma “solely because the student missed instructional time due to a school closure issued by the governor.’’

The rule also says that schools, in determining if a student meets the minimum course and competency requirements, may consider whether that person has successfully completed the educational opportunities that were provided during the days the schools where shuttered.

 That can include both online instruction and independent study that may be through printed materials.

But the rule does have an escape clause of sorts if there is no ability to determine if a student actually has been doing anything while at home.

 In that case, schools can decide that a student has met the requirements if he or she “was on track to meet the minimum course of study and competency requirements prior to the school closure.’’

What that can include, the rule says, could include whether the student was passing all of his or her courses. Also acceptable would be passing scores on locally or nationally administered academic assessments.

That decision ultimately would be made by local school officials.

And the rule spells out that when schools determine that students are entitled to academic credits and to graduate that they get their transcripts and diplomas “in the same manner’’ as if there had not been a closure.

Hoffman told Capitol Media Services after the meeting that her aim and that of the board is to ensure that students are given the benefit of the doubt and get to graduate, even if they didn’t do any work at all since schools were shuttered last month.

School closures are having an effect on families outside of the classroom as well.

“My son looks forward to doing his online learning and school work, but he misses playing tag on the playground with his friends,” Olson said.

But she said there is some comfort in knowing families throughout the community are in it together.

‘It has been challenging, no doubt. But knowing everyone else is experiencing this with us provides some comfort and solidarity,” she said.

Wong shared a similar sentiment, saying the commitment to home schooling, while sometimes difficult, is necessary for all families. 

“By embracing home schooling, we feel like we are doing our part to fight this war,” Wong said.

 

Howard Fischer with Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.