Inca Elementary School

School representatives serve lunches at Inca Elementary School in Buckeye.

School’s out -— but not entirely.

With marching orders to take care of brains and bellies  during school  closures, West Valley school leaders have scrambled to develop plans in the era of COVID-19.

When he looks at his staff, as well as colleagues at other districts, Dennis Runyan no longer sees just educators and administrators.

“We are first responders in this situation,” said Runyan, superintendent of Agua Fria Union High School District.

Runyan and other planners had to act swiftly March 15, when Gov. Doug Ducey closed schools for two weeks. On Friday, March 20, Ducey extended the closures by another two weeks, through April 10.

In his March 15 proclamation, Ducey ordered: “School administrators should make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home.”

Ducey also noted, “School administrators should develop a plan to continue breakfast and lunch services for Arizona students.” 

The Buckeye Elementary School District is providing drive-through breakfast and lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays at the Buckeye, Jasinski and Inca elementary schools.

Agua Fria Unified School District is also providing weekday breakfast and lunch pickups. Runyan said AFUSD is partnering with Litchfield and Avondale elementary school districts for Grab and Go food stations in Avondale, Litchfield Park and Goodyear for West Valley students and their families.

“Avondale and Litchfield (districts) have played an important organizational role with this effort,” Runyan said.

Students and families started picking up breakfast and lunch weekdays as of Monday, March  16. 

According to Tom Huffman, AFUSD’s executive director of Educational Services, after the first two days of the food service, “We fed 1,900 students in Avondale, Litchfield Park and Agua Fria (districts). Our expectation is that number would keep increasing.”

With stomachs being filled, AFUSD still had to figure out how to feed the brains of 8,300 students.

Runyan and Huffman said AFUSD was also off to a great start on Ducey’s “continued education learning opportunities” order.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the response and turnaround time in the district,” said Runyan. 

A huge contributing factor to AFUSD’s start last week was that all students were previously provided with Chromebook laptops. “At a time when we weren’t anticipating (COVID-19) we realized blended learning with more opportunities for learning at home was a direction we wanted to go,” Runyan said.

Huffman noted simply having a laptop is only half the battle.

“We know connectivity is an issue. We know that many of our students have Internet access at home but we are working to make sure that all do,” Huffman said. “We had already distributed devices/hotspots to over 200 of our students previously and spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday giving out the rest of our hotspots.”

He said the district has ordered more hotspots, which provide Internet access,  “which we are using a grant from our foundation to fund.”

Agua Fria district families who don’t have Internet access can visit parenthub.aguafria.org or call 623-932-7090.

While looking to make improvements so no student is left behind in online learning, Huffman said the first week of no physical school went well.

“Overall, teaching and learning online has been a very positive experience during a very challenging time. To move five high schools completely online in two or three days (showed) people’s attitudes are amazing,” Huffman said. 

“It’s been very positive, very successful, which is not to say there won’t be bumps in the road.”

Huffman said teachers were trained on  Tuesday, March 17, then started teaching online the next day.

Students were advised to go to an established Google Classroom. “That’s the primary tool to work with teachers and communicate with other students. The expectation is that students log in (to Google Classroom) every day,” Huffman said.

“That’s where the agenda will be posted. There might be lectures  or videos to watch.” 

In a monitored environment online, AFUSD students are able to communicate with each other.

“One of things students indicate is they kind of miss each other,” Huffman said. “They’re looking for ways to address that. They’re on their own implementing chat rooms.”

If it hasn’t been done already, perhaps some of the clever, tech-savvy students will come up with a “virtual prom” idea.

After postponing the Millennium High prom, Runyan said other district high school proms may also have to be delayed.