Divided MUSD board compromises on start dates

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MHS Principal Deana McNamee and DWMS Principal Carlos Alvarado addressed transition issues between online and in-person during Wednesday's special meeting. (MUSD)

In what was called a tradeoff, Maricopa Unified School District will open elementary campuses Sept. 14 and middle schools and the high school Sept. 21.

The governing board had considered waiting until after fall break to bring grades 6-12 back to class. In a nearly two-hour session Thursday, the five members haggled over the best return dates.

COVID benchmarks achieved for return to school campuses

They heard two secondary principals explain the “monumental effort” it will take to get the master schedules in place. They heard from about 20 parents, most pushing the board to bring students back to in-person instruction.

The board voted unanimously on returning kindergarten through fifth grade students on the 14th. But there was a rift among the members in deciding what to do with the older grades.

Ultimately, they voted 3-2 for the compromise date of the 21st, which is two weeks before the end of the first quarter.

While board Vice President Ben Owens and member Torri Anderson held out for Oct. 13 as first proposed by Superintendent Tracey Lopeman, member Patti Coutre held to her position that the return of secondary students needed to be expedited.

“We are doing an injustice to those students who are not doing well online,” Coutre said.

Board President AnnaMarie Knorr said she had been in favor of the Oct. 13 until the number of COVID-19 cases and positivity rates in the county trended downward dramatically and she heard from more parents of struggling high school students.

High school Principal Deana McNamee said her staff was prepared to work through fall break to make sure the schedule was correct and the transition as smooth as possible.

“We’ll do it if that’s the decision,” she said. “There will be errors, there will be gaps. Some students may be placed in the wrong course.”

Carlos Alvarado, principal of Desert Wind Middle School, said his staff is at the beginning stage of forming the master schedule and transitioning grading issues. He said scheduling a new school year usually takes 3-4 months over the summer.

“To reproduce that in three weeks is a very tall order,” he said.

A goal at the middle school is to have students stay with the same teachers as much as possible. But he said 100% of the schedules are going to change.

“We can make anything work,” Alvarado said. “That’s my commitment to Dr. Lopeman today.”

Lopeman said the district’s movement on a return-to-class plan was delayed because it wanted families to have two weeks’ experience with the online program before being surveyed for their opinions. She said she was pleasantly surprised by the number who opted to keep their children online for the semester, a result she attributed to effective teachers.

She said the district had expected 750 to 1,000 students to continue online. Instead, nearly 3,500 students chose to stay online.

That was 53% of elementary school students, 56% of middle school students and 41% of high schoolers. About 30% of high school parents did not respond to the survey, which the district counted as wanting in-person instruction.

Owens said the decision has brought him a lot of sleepless nights. He said one of his children needs to be back in class while another wants to stay online. Hearing the principals explain the work involved in the transition made him more resolute about delaying students’ return.

“Whatever our decision is, if we can’t do it with excellence and do the best job that we can to mitigate major schedule issues, I think we need to push that back,” he said. “If that means the 28th, if the 21st is not realistic, if we have to go back to the 13th for our 6-12, I think that’s what we have to do.”

Anderson said moving up the return was rude and “a disservice to our staff.”

After he and Anderson were voted down in their effort to open Oct. 13, Owens cautioned the community that parents and students will need to show a lot of patience with administrators as they work through the accelerated transition.

Coutre called the idea of waiting until second quarter “a luxury” of time. She said she was confident that if parents were polled, they would rather deal with the hassle of fixing schedules than stay online.

Knorr also reminded secondary students that they will not be going back to the school they left. Protocols for COVID-19 is making that a different experience. “There are going to be lots of issues,” she said.