As school districts across Pima County grapple with reopening as the community faces the coronavirus pandemic, many are setting dates to bring students physically back to classrooms.
Local school districts are predominantly offering hybrid models of in-person and remote learning with a separate option to remain completely online.
The Pima County Health Department recommends school districts rely on their COVID-19 transmission metrics when determining a reopening plan. The metrics track local disease data, healthcare capacity and public health capacity and show nine benchmarks representing the current status of the pandemic in the county.
As of Oct. 15, Pima County failed to meet one of the nine benchmarks: timely case investigation, which tracks the testing of symptomatic persons who may have been exposed to COVID-19 within 48 hours.
On Monday, Oct. 12, Amphitheater Public Schools reopened for hybrid in-person classes. Students attend classes two days a week and spend the other three learning remotely.
Amphitheater School District Superintendent Todd Jaeger has attended school sites every day this week and says most of the initial apprehensions around returning have been appeased.
“Most people had the impression that it went much better than they ever expected. I think with every part of this whole COVID thing, what it’s done to any aspect of school or our culture in general, is always the fear of the unknown,” Jaeger said. “This week as well was certainly one of those moments where people were very apprehensive, but the good news is everybody felt really good about this week.”
Split into two cohorts, one group of students attends classes Mondays and Thursdays and the other on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, both groups attend online Zoom lessons while teachers meet with students on an as-needed basis.
Jaeger says he saw all students and staff wearing masks and wiping down frequently used surfaces. Custodial staff, with help from bus drivers brought in for extra coverage, disinfect the schools before and after each school day.
“All those things are happening and they’re happening without as much demand for them as we thought. Everybody seems to get that they have a part to play, and they’re all playing that part,” Jaeger said.
Students who prefer all remote learning can enroll in Amphi Academy Online, the district’s full-time online option. Jaeger says about 1,400 of the district’s 14,000 students continued attending school completely online.
Tammy Osburn, a parent with a kindergartener and seventh-grader in the district, says the reopening has been a positive change for her children.
“It’s been wonderful, it’s been great for my kids and their mental health. They’re excited to see their friends, even if they only see a couple of them as opposed to all of them. They’re excited to actually go into a classroom and see teachers and be on campus,” Osburn said.
According to the superintendent, the district sent a survey to households assessing the type of reopening plan they wanted in mid-July. He says 43 percent wanted in-person school five days a week, 41 percent preferred hybrid learning and the rest voted for all remote learning.
While she initially questioned the logistics of the hybrid model, Osburn is happy her children are returning to in-person learning.
“Change is hard for everyone. I wasn’t necessarily excited about the hybrid model when they proposed it because it’s very erratic, you’re never in the same place for two days in a row,” Osburn said. “But I appreciate the fact that at least my children can be in class twice a week and see their teachers and have some sort of normalcy again.”
Jaeger admits he, too, felt apprehensive about the hybrid model but feels it’s the best option of those available.
“I was not terribly keen, originally, with the hybrid approach because I think it does create significant burdens for teachers, it creates burdens for families in terms of childcare arrangements,” Jaeger said. “The majority of our constituents wanted back in school to one degree or another. So as time marched on, we had to re-evaluate and look at hybrid again. Especially after having been out there this week, I’m really glad to see it.”
Although he recognizes switching to the hybrid model has been a “burden” for teachers, Jaeger believes the overarching response from the district’s educators has been positive.
“I talked to teachers who actually went into tears when they talked about how happy they were to have kids back and how much it meant to them to be able to spend time with kids physically and to hear their laughter and see them playing on playgrounds,” he said. “I was touched by how excited teachers were to have their kids back.”
Other school districts’ reopening plans
Catalina Foothills School District
Catalina Foothills’ students remain in an all-remote learning model. The district plans to introduce an in-person learning option Oct. 26, dependent on public health data tracking the spread of coronavirus in the county. When they add the in-person option, students can still choose to continue all remote learning.
Although they contemplated a hybrid learning model, Catalina Foothills decided against it due to “a significant increase in teacher workload,” according to their website.
Flowing Wells Unified School District
Flowing Wells plans to return to in-person learning in a hybrid model Oct. 22. Students can still opt to attend classes completely remotely, but the hybrid option will become available with differing schedules for elementary and secondary schools.
Elementary hybrid students attend class in-person at the same time every day in either the morning or afternoon and attend remote classes the other half of the day.
Secondary hybrid students only attend in-person class once a week and attend classes remotely the other four days.
Marana Unified School District
Marana reopened for in-person learning in a hybrid model Oct. 19. Families had to decide between three learning models: classroom learning, flexible learning or distance learning.
Students who selected the classroom learning plan were split into two groups with the first group attending classes Mondays and Wednesdays, and the second group attending on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All students learn remotely on Fridays. Students are participating in “flipped learning activities” on the days they aren’t at school, according to the district’s website.
Flexible learning involves remote learning at home from educators in the district with both live teacher-led and flipped instruction. On an individual basis, students in this learning model can transition to in-person classes. According to Marana’s website, this plan is for “unique and individual student learning needs.”
Only available for grades 5-12, the distance learning model consists of full-time online learning “designed around the personalized learning needs of the student.” All instruction is self-paced and asynchronous and taught by Marana or Mesa Distance Learning teachers.