In-person learning will continue in the Scottsdale Unified School District following a unanimous decision by the new Governing Board at a last-minute meeting on Jan. 7.
But some students will have to wait a little longer before coming back to campus after the board voted to delay the start of in-person middle school classes by one week to coincide with the start of high school classes on Jan. 19.
That decision comes as some parents and teachers in the district have expressed concerns over continuing to fill classrooms as COVID-19 cases surge in the community.
Like every other district in the Valley, state and county metrics show substantial COVID-19 spread in Scottsdale.
From Dec. 20 to 26, the district community saw 394 COVID cases per 100,000 residents and positivity rate of 14.5 percent in new test results.
At the Jan. 7 meeting, Superintendent Scott Menzel announced the district is partnering with Honor Health and Maricopa County to hold a vaccine drive for teachers and staff from SUSD and Paradise Valley Unified School District from Jan. 22 to 24.
In Arizona’s phased vaccine rollout, teachers and school staff are part of group 1B and can begin signing up for appointments on Jan. 11 in Maricopa County.
However, Menzel said those that sign up through the Honor Health partnership are likely to actually receive their vaccine before those that seek an appointment elsewhere.
He said more than 1,000 teachers and staff members had already signed up to receive a vaccine.
The SUSD Governing Board convened the special meeting to address a broad range of topics related to the return to in-person learning in the second semester as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in the Valley.
The board voted to extend up to 64 hours paid sick leave for staffers who miss time for reasons related to COVID-19 through March 31 after a federal rule requiring employers to offer that leave expired at the end of last year.
Notably, the board did not vote to require staff to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.
A legal opinion prepared for the Arizona Schools Risk Retention Trust, the district’s insurance provider, stated districts could legally require staff to receive a vaccine as a condition of on-site employment, with some exceptions.
The agenda for the meeting indicated the board may have received legal advice on the topic while in a closed executive session but the topic did not come up in the public meeting.
Ultimately, the board also decided not to alter the plan for elementary schools – which reopened in person on Jan. 4 – citing relatively little spread on SUSD’s elementary campuses and advice from Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine, the county’s Public Health Department director.
The only substantial change to the district’s return to in-person learning was the decision to delay the start of middle school in-person classes from Jan. 11 to Jan. 19.
Menzel cited concerns about posts shared over social media that may have shown some middle and high school students participating in risky behavior, like partying, during the break.
By moving the start date to Jan. 19, the district and county theoretically have more time to allow contact tracing efforts to identify any transmission related to the New Year’s holiday.
In explaining his recommendation not to alter elementary school plans, Menzel repeated what he has said for months: those students do not participate in the same risky behavior and suffer the most from a lack of in-person instruction.
Menzel also said that there are few if any new cases at elementary schools since returning on Jan. 4, though the district will continue to monitor each school closely.
On the broader decision to continue in-person learning at all grade levels, Menzel repeated another oft-cited insight from Sunenshine.
Menzel said he was advised that closing schools will do little to slow the spread of the virus without larger mitigation efforts and strategies from the state or federal government.
He said there is no indication government leaders will roll out those mitigation efforts.
“If we just shut down, it probably won’t mitigate community spread,” Menzel said.
Still, board member Julie Cieniawski, a retired teacher, expressed concern that the district has continued to move the goal posts when it comes to which public health metrics would trigger a suspension of in-person learning.
The board initially adopted metrics from the county and state in August that would have closed campuses if any one of the COVID metrics reached the red level indicating community spread.
But, after the state discreetly loosened those guidelines in November, the district has largely ignored them in favor of following guidance from Sunenshine – who, Menzel noted, has steadfastly supported keeping schools open unless there is evidence of outbreak or spread on campus.
In that case, the district could close specific schools instead of shutting the whole district because of spread on one specific campus.
The board followed in the footsteps of other East Valley districts to develop SUSD-specific metrics that would trigger a school closure.
The metrics will likely be similar to those adopted by Chandler Unified.
Under that district’s plan, a school would return to virtual learning if a campus has a percent positivity rate among the campus population of 1.5 percent for elementary schools, 1 percent for middle schools or 0.75 percent for high schools.
The SUSD board directed Menzel to create a committee of administrators, teachers and other staff to develop SUSD’s metrics for temporarily returning a school to online-only learning and the process to reopen a campus after closure.
Menzel will have to move at breakneck speed to create the new committee and formulate the new metrics as he committed to bring a proposal to the board at its next meeting on Jan. 19 – the same day middle and high school students return to campus.
Menzel noted there are scenarios where the district could also close a school even if it did not reach one of those metrics, though.
For instance, if there were four or five cases in a single classroom - which likely would not reach the campus-wide percent positivity threshold - the district could still close a school.
In addition to developing the new metrics, Menzel, at Cienawski’s behest, committed to look into crafting a maximum classroom capacity for individual grades and schools in order to maintain safe distances in classrooms.
He said he would also investigate claims that some parents are sending students to school while sick.