Scottsdale Unified

Scottsdale Unified recently wrapped up its meal distribution program and will now turn its attention to ramping up for a new school year.

As the Scottsdale Unified School District prepares to present its school reopening plan at Governing Board meeting on July 7, the district is grappling with an ever-changing environment in Arizona caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I want to make sure that the larger community understands that we’re taking into consideration all of those variables when looking at the recommendations that we’ll be bringing forward to the board and thinking about our next steps,” said Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel, who took over July 1.

In a letter to parents on June 11, the district announced it is considering adopting three options for SUSD students: traditional in-school classes with additional cleaning and distancing protocols, all-online learning and a hybrid option.

But families likely won’t gain any clarity on when the district plans to hold its “first day of school” for each of those options until the July 7 board meeting, if not later.

On June 29, Governor Doug Ducey announced that he pushed back the first day of school for in-person learning to at least August 17, though the order does not apply to distance learning.

And that assumes students are going to show up on Aug. 17 – and anyone will be there to teach them.

Around 42 percent of teachers who responded to a district survey said they would support coming back to the classroom fulltime. About 38 percent said they supported an online only model.

“A lot of parents are ready for their kids to go back,’’ said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. And he said teachers also are ready.

But Thomas said it’s not that simple in the days of COVID-19.

“We’re all starting to learn that there are people that we know who either they have it or their kids have it or a family member has it,’’ he said.

“So there’s a lot of anxiety,’’ Thomas explained. “They want to be back. But they just don’t feel safe.’’

Even state schools chief Kathy Hoffman said there’s no guarantee that there will be children in classrooms on that date – or that it will be safe to open schools on Aug. 17. Instead, she sees that date really as a point when education officials will evaluate conditions at that time.

“And there is a potential for that date to shift,’’ Hoffman said.

SUSD, which was scheduled to begin school Aug. 10, also cautioned that plans are changing regularly in response to the reality on the ground in Arizona.

“Another thing that I think is important to point out is that the conditions on the ground can change pretty significantly, and so whatever we put out the first week in July may change by the time school starts,” Menzel said.

Hoffman said a lot of this is linked to the announcements last week from the governor on the latest efforts to curb the spread of the virus, including promoting and enforcing social distancing.

“We can’t even have groups of more than 10 people at the pool,’’ Hoffman said. “How can we possibly open our schools safely where we know that we have classrooms of 20, 30 or more students and high schools with upwards of thousands of students and teachers all coming together.’’

Even the governor conceded that Aug. 17 start date is “aspirational.’’

If classes do resume, it is likely that students and staff will be required to wear masks in schools.

“While visiting any district or school facility, all individuals over the age of 2 years are required to wear a face mask and adhere to physical distancing requirements,” according to a letter sent to families on June 25.

District spokeswoman Amy Bolton told the Progress that the district is abiding by a mandate issued by the Maricopa County Supervisors on June 19, which requires masks be worn in most public places.

“Therefore, it is required that while these orders remain in effect that all employees, students, athletes, coaches, visitors, volunteers and all people on Scottsdale Unified properties will follow these orders by wearing a face mask/covering that covers the nose and the mouth, as outlined in the County’s regulation,” Bolton said.

SUSD is grappling with the same issues as other districts around the state, including how to administer an online program for students as young as kindergarten.

In order to work through these questions, the district convened several committees and subcommittees to look at issues such as teaching and learning and the social-emotional health of students.

To address the online learning question, SUSD announced in the June 11 letter that it plans to expand Scottsdale Online Learning, the district’s existing online offering for sixth graders and up. The district will expand that curriculum to K-5.

The cost to expand the program is not known at this time.

“I am unable to confirm the cost of this program, as the online learning model has not even been proposed publicly or approved by the Governing Board,” said Bolton, noting that any purchase of over $100,000 is required to go before the board for approval.

Beyond cost, questions persist about the practicality of expanding the online program to younger students.

Becky Williams, president of the Scottsdale Education Association and a kindergarten teacher in the district, said online learning at the end of last year was a struggle for her class because it was difficult to maintain the norms students are used to in the classroom.

At that time, teachers were using online meeting applications from Google and Microsoft, not the district’s online learning platform, but she questions whether a year-long online program for younger students makes sense.

“I don’t know how we could deliver anything that meets all of our students’ needs online,” Williams said.

SUSD is far from the only district in the Valley looking to offer an online-only curriculum for all students as many families express reservations about coming back to school during the pandemic.

According to a survey by SUSD, around 60 percent of students and 56 percent of parents who responded indicated they wanted to return to the classroom while around 20 percent of students and parents opted for the online-only option, outgoing Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard said at a Governing Board meeting in June.

The district is likely feeling pressure as some other East Valley districts have already rolled out their plans and openly expressed a desire to use their own slate of offerings to boost enrollment by attracting out-of-district families.

Kyrene School District in neighboring Tempe unveiled details of its plan on June 9 and its aggressive approach to student recruitment “sent shudders” though other East Valley districts, according to Ahwatukee Foothills News.

“The Kyrene Digital Academy has been developed, first and foremost, as a response to a need within our existing Kyrene community, as families are seeking educational options that do not require them to send children to school in-person,” Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm told AFN.

“While that is the school’s initial purpose, it is open to any child in the State of Arizona, and will be marketed beyond Kyrene’s immediate geographic boundaries, to ensure all families have the information they need about this new school,” Helm said.

SUSD is very familiar with competition. A demographic study commissioned by the district last year pointed to increased competition from charter schools as the main driver behind a decade-long enrollment loss.

Bolton did not directly address whether or not SUSD administration is concerned about competition from Kyrene and others, only stating that the district is confident in the quality of its programs.

“We know that Scottsdale Unified School District and our 28 campuses have a strong reputation for high quality education that is student-focused,” Bolton said. “We want nothing more than to welcome all of our existing families back to school in the fall, regardless of what campus or learning modality works for their family and welcome in any new families that want to be a part of our district.”

Bolton pointed to increased retention by the district last year – when it lost only about 60 students compared to the nearly 500 predicted by the demographic study – which resulted in a $2.7-million boost to the district’s budget.

Even with that positive outlook, it is clear that continued distance learning will pose some challenges for the families and students that select that option – and the district staff charged with supporting them.

Lara Palles, president of the Scottsdale Parent Council, also expressed concerns about how online learning affects students, drawing on what occurred at the end of last year.

“I think that’s why there was so much learning loss and so many other things going on and that’s from a perspective of a fairly typical household,” Palles said.

“We’re not even talking about households that undergo trauma, right?” Palles said. “So that’s a whole different story, and we can’t even know what’s going on with some of those students and kids and parents.”

Williams said she is also concerned that the existing Scottsdale Online Learning model will put too much pressure on parents who are juggling working from home while also helping one or more children attend school online.

“It seems like it’s more of a curriculum designed for parents that are choosing to home-school their children,” Williams said. 

“And there’s a huge component that parents have to sit with their kids, so if the parents are having to quarantine and work from home and then also monitor their students’ learning, we’d like to see something that’s a little less intensive on those parents, but also delivers the quality of instruction that we could do in the classroom,” Williams said.

Palles said even the strain of the previous online learning model during the shutdown was too much for some families.

In reality, Williams said it was a struggle every time she logged on and saw that half of her students were not in class.

“We were doing twice the work for half the students, I feel like,” Williams said.

There is also the question of how distance learning affects student’s social and emotional health.

“Education is extremely important and it’s secondary to the risk of mental health or physical health, and I think that’s kind of where the challenge is,” Palles said.

Bolton said SUSD has a subcommittee in place working on the social-emotional aspects of the school re-opening.

“Regardless of the modality of learning ... SUSD has a wide variety of support and resources available for students and their families,” Bolton said.

A letter sent home on June 18 included phone numbers for various support services and also included an update on how the district will use feedback from the subcommittee to train teachers in  “trauma- informed practices and self-care, with a focus on increasing protective factors to meet the social emotional needs of students.”

And those needs are not isolated to younger students.

Williams said older kids feel the isolation from their classmates even though they may be more adept at navigating online learning. 

The transition is not easy for teachers, either. With multiple models in play, it is unclear if teachers will be asked to teach both in the classroom and online or if certain instructors will be relied on for online-only instruction.

Bolton said the district will announce that before the Governing Board on July 7, based on recommendations from the teaching and learning subcommittee and feedback from a survey of teachers in June.

“We are reviewing the feedback from that survey now to determine what is the best approach for students and teachers,” Bolton said.

Williams, who has been involved in district talks, said SUSD is still working through those questions but one option would see online courses taught by teachers who decline to come to back to the classroom because of health concerns.

That uncertainty in a state already experiencing an ongoing teacher shortage is just another complicating factor the district must work through.

Williams, the kindergarten teacher, said that is why it is important for the district to be methodical as it prepares to reopen despite criticism from some in the community that SUSD has not moved fast enough.

“I think that for sure, we’re taking our time so that we can have a more strategic approach,” Williams said. “I think the thought process needs to be on the safety and security of students and staff rather than what’s going to maintain the highest enrollment.”

Ducey said schools can start operations on schedule but only with remote teaching.

“It does have the benefit of starting to get teachers paid when they would normally expect to get paid,’’ said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Potentially more significant, he said, is that starting “classes’’ as scheduled in early August eliminates the need for schools to either extend their academic year or eliminate mid-year breaks to get the required 180 days of education necessary to qualify for full state aid.

“We can’t just stop the school year and push it back and push it back,’’ Hoffman said. “We need teachers teaching and students learning.’’

The state doesn’t provide as much aid per student for those who are in either fully online or “hybrid’’ programs, the latter being a combination of in-class and remote learning. That leaves the question of whether this early online-learning start will leave schools with less cash than they were anticipating to cover expenses, including teacher salaries.

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said there is a presumption that if schools start online only and get less state aid, the missing cash eventually will be made up.

“But we still don’t have guidelines from the governor’s office and the Department of Education on exactly how that process would work and the timelines for that,’’ he said.

-Howard Fischer with Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.