by Blake Herzog
The coronavirus pandemic has pulled the rug out from everyone in the education community numerous times since it took hold in the U.S. in March, and it continues to happen as the new school year quickly approaches.
Still, district and charter school leaders in Pinal County have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen, having sketched out contingency plans and backups for those plans.
These generally involve offering students the option of returning to the classroom, continuing with online instruction or possibly some combination of the two, depending on personal preferences and outside circumstances.
For example, as of the last day of June Casa Grande Elementary School District Superintendent Dr. JoEtta Gonzales was juggling a just-postponed statewide first day of school, COVID cases steadily spreading across the community and the fear of more spread, and the need to get about 6,660 kids back to school, in one fashion or another.
The district has had a 60-member committee of administrators, parents, teachers and staff hammering out the options for reopening the school.
“I really feel good about the decision-making that’s going on right now,” Gonzales said.
And she’s made another one.
“We start on Aug. 17, I’m thinking, no matter what, whether it’s virtually or in person. We can’t see pushing it beyond that date. So we’ll do the conferences and some professional development in the weeks leading up to the 17th, and make sure everybody’s ready to go on the 17th,” she said.
The CGESD board had already voted June 23 to push the first day of school back a week from the original Aug. 3 so parent-teacher-student conferences could be held the week before classes start. The plan now is to hold these meetings, which Gonzales considers more critical than ever, the week of Aug. 10.
Students “have been out of school for five months, and they may be in a very different place from when they left, academically, socially, emotionally, their family situation,” she said. “If they’ve lost skills in the interim, we would know that and be able to address that.”
The Chromebooks (for students in grades second through eighth) and iPads (kindergarten and first grade) the district has purchased for every student will be distributed during these meetings. The district is planning to hold these face-to-face but is working on a backup plan for virtual meetings and contactless delivery for the technology if community spread of the virus is too high that week.
The devices were purchased with $700,000 in federal CARES Act funds and are intended to close any technology gaps, especially for lower-income families. Gonzales said the entire community has been pulling together to make sure all students will have home internet access.
“We’re working with the City to make sure every one of our students has access to a router and a modem, and then we’re also working with local technology companies, and a lot of them have offered free internet for a month or two months. We’ve got a lot of other folks who’ll do it for $10 a month,” she said. Local organizations also are providing scholarships and additional Wi-Fi hotspots.
Instruction will feel different for kids who return to CGESD’s 12 elementary and middle schools, Gonzales said, with homeroom classes, or “cohorts,” physically distanced and kept in their classrooms throughout the day, including meals, except for outdoor breaks. Students are to wear masks while they’re outside.
“When they get to school they will go straight to their classrooms and be welcomed by a teacher there. They’d still get playground time, but it’s just one cohort of students at a time, not the entire grade level and not the entire school,” she said.
Gonzales, who in June was named the Arizona School Administrators Association’s Distinguished Superintendent for 2020, said the district is learning from its experience with online learning last spring, along with research done by others in the field, to guide the online component. One thing leaders and teachers are striving for is making sure coursework is aligned across every grade so students who end up transitioning between campus and online can pick up where they left off.
One thing the online academy won’t be is desk-bound, she said.
“Our online model will not be a model where students are sitting behind a computer all day, we don’t believe that’s healthy,” Gonzales said. “So we’ll have a variety of different activities and projects for them to work on and away from the computer.”
The “hybrid” model most likely will come into play if community spread is considered high, but not high enough to shut campuses completely. Students will go to campus either Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday and learn online the other three days of the week. Wednesday would be reserved for deep cleaning of classrooms. Frequent handwashing, disinfecting and other measures will take place whenever students are on campus.
Teachers who don’t want to return to campus and risk being infected with coronavirus will be able to transfer to the online academy for the year. Others who are willing to go back may not be able to right away if the pandemic crisis doesn’t abate enough by Aug. 17.
“And we’re worried about our substitute teachers, too,” she added. “If we go back to campus and one of our teachers gets sick, who wants to come in?”
CGESD already has contingencies used during past sub shortages, but one, splitting a teacherless class between two other classes, isn’t going to work under the cohort system. Principals and district office leaders, including Gonzales, have filled in, and campus paraprofessionals are now being asked to consider getting a substitute certificate.
Additional CARES Act funding has gone into preparing CGESD campuses for the eventual return of students in the COVID era, in accordance with CDC and state guidelines, purchasing protective equipment, plexiglass shields, signage encouraging social distancing and even new, more expensive air-conditioning filters.
The filters are expensive and force the HVAC to work harder, so are adding to the potential added costs to operate school campuses during the pandemic.
“If students don’t come back to school physically we’ll still be running air conditioning for staff who come in, but I don’t think it’ll be as much of a cost than if everyone comes back,” she said.
Social distancing could really throw a wrench into transportation, she added.
“We’ll have some fuel savings if we don’t pick up students, but if we do this model where everybody’s coming back or even the hybrid model, we can only fit so many students on a bus and keep them safe, and so we’re probably going to be using double or triple the amount of fuel.”
The vast majority of parents, students and teachers favor a full-time return to campus, Gonzales said, but it’s unclear how much recent increases in COVID-19 cases might have put a damper on that.
That was the result of a survey conducted June 8-29, but Gonzales feared it might already be out of date, given how dramatically reported COVID-19 cases have surged.
“Depending on whether they filled out the survey three weeks ago, their feelings might have drastically changed between then and yesterday. We don’t have a really strong feeling for where people stand today.
“But we know in the last three weeks, parents and kids, they want to be in school, they really want to be in school. I think they realize what they had — friends and adults who care about them. The learning is secondary, really,” she said, laughing. “It’s all that other stuff that’s so important to the development of a child,” she said.