Kate McDowell

Kate McDowell of Scottsdale enjoyed her time as a student advisor.

At age 15, Kate McDowell has developed a keen interest in public policy – and had the rare opportunity to contribute to it.

The Scottsdale teen, a junior at Chaparral High School, was a member of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman’s Student Advisory Board – which played a role in the formation of the 35-page guidance document for reopening schools in Arizona.

And overall, Kate thinks the document reflects students’ concerns.

She also indicated they had other concerns that go beyond reopening. Those largely remain with the Legislature.

“Having viewed the reopening guidelines, I would have to say that, by and large, those guidelines were shaped by medical decisions,” Kate told the Progress. “However, our student advisory group did recommend that an emphasis be placed on student mental health, especially for younger students who were more stressed by the upheaval. 

"The guidelines put out by Kathy address that concern. They encourage schools to be watching and assessing students who appear to be under stress.”

Between the way the 2019-20 school year ended with a three-month shutdown and the uncertainties that hover over the coming year, she indicated, that stress is not likely to end quickly.

For Kate, it’s not so much a matter of stress as it is a concern for both the health of her classmates and teachers –and the future of public education.

“I do worry that students will not follow guidelines to wear masks,” said Kate, who also is a member of Chaparral Student Government and the Scottsdale Mayor’s Youth Council.

“There is zero possibility that we can maintain social distancing in my classes as they stand currently,” she explained. “I have had an average of over 30 students in every class I have attended since fifth grade.  Additionally, I doubt that students would have the ability to wash their hands, even before eating, at a large high school like Chaparral.  

“While I am not concerned for my own health, I do have some teachers that would fall into the high-risk group. I would rather those teachers go to online rather than retire. I personally, am willing to adjust my schedule and expectations to work around the needs of staff.”

As Scottsdale Unified continues to work on its reopening plan, Kate has other concerns as well – especially about what school will look like when campuses reopen.

“My chief concerns are that while older at-risk teachers at the high school level can feasibly teach online until the danger has passed, that is less doable for older or immunocompromised teachers at the elementary school level,” she said. 

“I have concerns about how the districts will clean the schools and where the additional funding will come from. Lastly and less importantly – but still something I think about – I am concerned about missing all of the events that make school memories like homecoming and Flash and pep rallies, etc.”

As for emotional health, she said, “I haven’t heard any student express fears or anxiety for themselves but they are concerned for their parents and teachers.”

She evoked mixed feelings about the new normal that likely will prevail at her school and most others come the start of the 2020-21 year.

“I love attending football games at Chaparral. But, the student section, known as The Bird Cage, is packed like sardines,” she said. “If you didn’t bring a water bottle with you, you are going to be thirsty because you cannot move to go purchase anything.

"I cannot see how we could ‘socially distance’ at a football game. Perhaps they could limit the number of attendees but that seems so depressing.”

“Like our large class sizes, there is no feasible way to maintain social distance in our inside corridors,” she continued. “I suppose, you could have the classrooms closest to the doors exit first and then evacuate class by class. But you would be taking up quite a bit of time during pass periods, further limiting time that students can wait to wash their hands.  

“Honestly, if students go back to school, the real answer is that there is no way students can maintain social distancing,” she said. “I think the only reasonable thing we can expect is that students might be persuaded to wear masks.”

Kate also takes the bigger picture into her view.

“I think that Arizona schools will open whether it is feasible or not,” she said. “The economy was shut down, not just by the stay-at-home orders but by parents needing to be home to provide child care. This highlights the importance of our public schools.

“I think we can all see that you cannot maintain a strong economy without our schools providing childcare as well as an education. I fear that the efforts schools will be forced to put into having us return will further lessen our resources. We were already underfunded and this will be a huge cost.”

Kate’s public-policy involvement began well before she entered Chaparral.

She was president of the Cocopah Student Council as an eighth grader and her guidance counselor at Chaparral suggested she apply for Hoffman’s advisory council because “she knew of my long-held interest in public policy, student government and my advocacy for public education.”

The council has met regularly with Hoffman on a variety of issues.

“Our very first meeting with Kathy, she spent most of her time listening to us,” Kate said. “She wanted to know from the students themselves, what was working well in education and what was not working.

“I still recall that the number one issue for all the committee students was their dislike with taking up so much valuable class time with standardized tests. Another big topic of concern was school safety.  Students across the state worry about the prevalence of mass shootings in schools. 

Other topics that we explored were the importance of the census, top priorities for where we most wanted additional funding – some students needed upgraded technology at their schools, others needed money for facilities maintenance, and extracurriculars, especially STEM-based, like robotics. 

“I distinctly recall a conversation we had about how students with special needs or non-native- English speakers were at a disadvantage when it comes to standardized testing and school in general.”

During their last meeting, Hoffman wanted to know their experience with online learning.

“By and large, the students on the committee were happy to have the ability to learn at our own pace,” Kate said. “However, the younger students on the committee really missed the daily interaction with their teachers and friends. At the time of our last meeting, not knowing how the fall semester would look, we gave as much detailed information as we could so that they would know what worked and what didn’t with online learning.”

As for her own experience with distance learning, she said, “Completing assignments was challenging at times. However, my teachers quickly adapted to an online format.  While I missed daily interaction with teachers and other students, I found that I was able to finish my work quickly despite taking all Honors and AP level courses.”

Kate is confident that Scottsdale Unified officials will come up with a workable plan that will protect the health of students and staff, though she accepts the likelihood of things being different. 

“I think schools will just have to be creative about using their outdoor spaces,” she said. "If districts are providing daily bus transportation, I would imagine they can figure that out.”

Though she has lots of time to think about her post-high school destination, Kate already has toured four colleges around the country and hopes to do more, but not until spring.

“This pandemic hasn’t altered what I am looking for in a college,” she said. “I have read articles in which students are rethinking the cost of college and looking for less expensive alternatives, like local community colleges. I am still interested in exploring all of my options.”