More than 80 members of school boards across Arizona—including several from the West Valley—have called on state officials to delay opening campuses until at least Oct. 1.
Board members also signed their names on the letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent of Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the state Legislature.
“Positive cases in Arizona are trending upward, not downward,” the letter states. “We cannot reopen our schools for on-site learning until we experience a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period.
“We want to help mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, not contribute to higher and higher numbers of outbreaks and deaths in our communities.”
The letter, which does not represent official school board positions but rather the individuals on those boards, makes a series of other requests beyond keeping campuses closed until Oct. 1.
Ducey has delayed the opening of campuses until Aug. 17—a date he reiterated last week as “aspirational” rather than set in stone.
School board members who signed the letter include: Steven Chapman, Tolleson Union High School District; Devin Del Palacio, Tolleson Union High School District; Nikkie Whaley, Washington Elementary School District; Mariana Sandoval, Agua Fria Union High School District; Jete White, Pendergast Elementary School District; Martín J. Quezada, Pendergast Elementary School District; Aaron Jahneke, Washington Elementary School District; Monica Gallardo Pimentel, Glendale Elementary School District; Marissa E. Hernandez, Cartwright Elementary School District; Denice Martha Garcia, Cartwright Elementary School District; Mary Kay Utecht, Agua Fria Union High School District; David Sandoval, Peoria Unified School District; Monica Ceja Martinez, Peoria Unified School District; Dr. Pearlette J. Ramos, Littleton Elementary School District; and Catherine Pettitt, West Valley Arts and Tech Charter School District.
The letter from board members to state officials also asks the state officials to set a COVID-19 case data point for districts to use in determining when to reopen campuses as well as establish uniform safety protocols.
It also seeks equal per-pupil funding for both online and in-class students; a waiver of the 180-day instruction requirement; suspension of standardized state assessment tests for the school year with allowance for districts to use their own student-performance measurements; and permission to distribute breakfasts and lunches even when campuses are closed.
“We need real goals and plans so we can focus on instructional, facility and transportation planning,” the letter states, adding:
“Let administrators and teachers plan for and excel at teaching the first quarter remotely. If there is a reduction of risk and infection in our communities, this natural break in our academic calendar will be an ideal time to consider returning to in-person learning.”
In their request for suspending state achievement tests, the board members wrote:
“We ask that our focus this academic year be offering high-quality remote-learning and a measured return to safe in-person classes, rather than on reaching higher levels of academic success as measured by a single assessment.”
It said there is no study that “indicates that the number of infections will have decreased by any certain day on the calendar, and administrators, teachers, and families across the state are very nervous about returning to our school buildings and classrooms.”
The letter two weeks ago came during a week in which President Trump, members of his cabinet and other leading Republicans demanded that schools reopen for in-class learning.
U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, led a group of Republican lawmakers who demanded that schools reopen as usual in the fall, stating, “It would be more harmful to keep children locked out of schools and less harmful and less risky for children to go back to schools.”
During a press conference in which he acknowledged that COVID-19 cases were exploding in Arizona, Ducey said he won’t play politics in deciding when campuses can reopen.
On the same day of his press conference, Scottsdale Unified became the first district in Arizona to announce it won’t reopen their schools before Sept. 8.
Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also said that, while she wants to get students back in the classroom, “we cannot ignore the severity of COVID-19 in our state and how that impacts adults and children alike in our school communities.”
“Those valued members of our schools need more assurances that schools and communities have the resources they need to stop the virus from spreading widely throughout their community,” her tweet said. “I cannot provide those assurances to the adults and students who are medically vulnerable in our school community at this time.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines aimed at helping school systems determine how best to reopen schools this fall. But those guidelines—which include social distancing, sanitizing, wearing masks and more—were attacked by Trump and his supporters as too strict.
Trump tweeted that the CDC should reconsider its guidelines, which he called “very tough & expensive.”
Speakers at the event organized by the House Freedom Caucus, which Biggs chairs, called the CDC guidelines “ridiculous” and “extremely harmful” for students’ emotional and physical well-being.
They repeatedly noted that being kept out of school is bad for children’s emotional health and that COVID-19 is neither dangerous to children nor easily spread by them.
Meanwhile, Snowflake Republican Sylvia Allen, who chairs the state Senate Education Committee, told Cronkite News she doubts Ducey has the power to delay the reopening of campuses.
She said Arizona should not be governed through executive orders, noting that “the legislative branch makes policy and budget allocations, not the executive branch.”
“It is time to stop, call a special session and get back to the constitutional operations of our state,” Allen said.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, a teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, doubts that a special legislative session is feasible, and she worries how many legislators would actually show up because of COVID-19 concerns and obligations to family members who may be sick or at risk.
“Calling a special session would end up with a bunch of people running in different directions, which is not going to help,” Udall said.
“I don’t think we have enough consensus to get anything done.”
Despite such reservations, Udall said, she “would love” to hold a special session to address education issues in the state—under different circumstances.
However, she and Allen both support giving schools the authority to delay the start of in-person classes.
Allen said she recently worked on her own legislation that would have provided, among other items, “local control and flexibility for schools opening and determination of health protocols.”
A survey by the Arizona Education Association released this month found an overwhelming number of educators believe schools should only reopen when it is deemed safe to do so.
Of 7,651 educators surveyed by the association, 68% opposed returning to classrooms at this point.
The survey also showed 60% of the respondents believed their districts were not prepared to reopen schools.
More than 90% of the respondents also expressed concerns about themselves, colleagues and even students contracting COVID-19.
As far as what social distancing measures districts should enact, smaller class sizes were the most popular, with 96% in favor.
But most respondents believed there aren’t enough teachers to achieve social distancing in classrooms or even employees to provide food service and adequate cleaning of facilities.
Expect More Arizona also released the second part of a May survey of 11,000 teachers on their observations and experiences related to online learning that districts began when schools were shut down for the fourth quarter of the last school year.
According to the survey, 41% of teachers felt they were “somewhat” prepared for the transition to an online setting last spring, while 35% of teachers felt they were not prepared at all.
Only 14% of teachers felt three-quarters or more of their students were fully engaged in online work.