Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced last week that while districts have to open up schools in some fashion by Aug. 17, they do not have to provide in-classroom instruction until their region hits certain metrics regarding the spread of COVID-19.
“I cannot ask our educators and families to enter this school year without critical assurances, policies and resources to set them up for safety and success,” Hoffman said at a July 23 press conference.
The Arizona Department of Health Services is expected to release the metrics—which could include factors such as a downward trajectory of new cases, a decrease in positivity rates and widespread availability of tests—by Aug. 7.
But with so much uncertainty, local districts are moving forward with a variety of plans that include online learning at the start of the school year, with a date for a return to in-person instruction still uncertain.
Under the plan revealed by Ducey and Hoffman last week, all districts must have some kind of “learning center” open by Aug. 17 to meet the needs of a variety of students, such as pupils with special needs or the children of working parents who can’t both hold down jobs and supervise their kids.
Tucson Unified School District had already announced a plan that fits into the state’s program. All students at TUSD will start the school year on Aug. 10 with a fully online program. Schools will be open on Aug. 17 but kids will be in smaller groups with monitors overseeing them while teachers provide digital lessons to a virtual classroom. Those in class will be expected to wear masks, but exceptions will be made for students with special needs. The district will also introduce a host of other steps to disinfect surfaces and reduce the potential for an outbreak.
Other school districts are developing similar plans. The Amphitheater School District voted earlier this month to offer two options for students: in-person instruction and Amphi Academy Online. But all students will start the school year remotely on Aug. 10, with in-person instruction beginning “when it is safe to do so,” according to the district’s website. The website notes it was unlikely in-person classes would start before Labor Day but that plan may need to be revised based on last week’s executive order mandating that schools open learning centers by Aug. 17.
On July 20, the district sent out an email to employees saying all teachers are expected to teach online classes from an assigned school site when instruction begins on Aug. 10. They cited the district’s reliable internet access and privacy protection as reasons for the mandate, and said some teachers “didn’t make themselves available” to students and parents during work hours at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
“People are less inclined to support schools if they believe school personnel do not have the same working situation as other public employees,” the email said.
This move did not sit well with some Amphi employees, including Barbara Anderson, a librarian at Innovation Academy. She said forcing teachers (who may have children themselves) to work from school and not at home during the COVID-19 pandemic is unreasonable.
She started a petition calling on Amphi to allow teachers the option of working from home. As of Monday morning, nearly 3,000 people had signed the petition.
“It kind of came out of the blue, the employees association was trying to talk and meet with the superintendent and explain why that was problematic, and they really didn’t get anywhere, so that’s why I started the petition,” Anderson said. “What I was hearing from parents is they really don’t care where their child’s teacher teaches from, as long as they do their job.”
Anderson said the WiFi at Innovation Academy gets logged out every 10 minutes, which will be problematic for young students trying to stay engaged in online learning. Many teachers have said they have better technology at home, such as computers with cameras and microphones, than what is available to them at their schools. But all schools are different, and Anderson wishes the Amphi administrators would recognize that.
“The point I wanted to make with the petition is not that every teacher has to teach at home, just that if you feel like you’re going to be more effective at home, you should have that option,” she said.
Marana Unified School District Superintendent Dan Streeter said the governor’s newest executive order on schools doesn’t change their plans to begin instruction remotely on Wednesday, Aug. 5. In a letter to parents, he said the district is finalizing their plans to create an on-site learning center by Aug. 17. Traditional in-person classroom learning will be provided once it is safe to do so.
“Please know that we are continuing to work closely with Pima County health officials and our different stakeholder groups in our planning efforts to determine when the District can safely return to in-person instruction,” Streeter wrote.
Families in Marana who keep their children at home will have a choice of Remote Learning or Distance Learning. The Distance Learning option, available to grades 5-12, is a self-paced program with a specialized curriculum offered through Mesa Distance Learning. It’s designed for self-starters who can keep up with a rigorous program that includes 80 different courses.
The Remote Learning program, which is being offered for grades K-12, is more of a traditional classroom gone virtual. Classes are taught by MUSD teachers and there are various options for students to get extra support. They can also choose between attending class in person or completing the coursework online.