The superintendent of Maricopa Unified School District said Wednesday that a return to in-person education Sept. 8 is “unrealistic.”
Among the three benchmarks set by the state for a return to in-person classes is a county positivity rate for COVID-19 under 7% for two straight weeks. Pinal County has not yet achieved that for even one week.
The next data comes out Thursday. In order for the district to meet its aspirational return date of Sept. 8, the county data must show a rate under 7% this week and next. The district would not know until Sept. 3.
Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said the five-day turnaround was “too ambitious, too wrought with errors.”
She recommended moving back the start date for in-person instruction for K-5 to Sept. 14. For grades 6-12 she recommended coming back to class Oct. 13, the beginning of second quarter.
She noted “circumstances have changed” at the high school because of a positive coronavirus test. She said secondary students have an easier time online than elementary students, and the reworking of staffing and transition is “exponentially harder” at that level.
The plan would have teachers who only teach only in the classroom and others who are only online.
Lopeman said 164 staff members were interested in teaching online only.
The governing board discussed the issue Wednesday at its regular meeting and plans to consider additional data during a Sept. 3 special meeting.
MUSD students started school online July 30. After two weeks, the administration surveyed parents about whether they wanted their children to resume in-person classes or stay online. Nearly 53% of parents of elementary school students chose the online option. Among middle schoolers, it was 56%.
High school was a different matter, as nearly 30 percent of families did not respond to the question. Of those who did respond, 51% wanted to stay online.
Lopeman’s plan for delaying the start of in-person classes includes expanding campus learning labs from half day to full day. Board Vice President Ben Owens asked Lopeman to look into the possibility of providing transportation to the learning labs.
At the beginning of the meeting, three parents urged the board to get students back in class as soon as possible. Though the board did not vote on the issue, members shared their opinions and concerns. All had been contacted by parents and teachers with a range of experiences online.
Board member Patti Coutre said she knew families with students who are not doing well at all online and falling further behind. Though Sept. 14 might work for the elementary grades, she was adamantly against waiting until Oct. 13 to get middle schoolers and high schoolers back on campus.
Owens said teachers shared with him that kids are grasping the online process and parents are stepping up more than ever before. He said switching from online to in-person at midstream would be disruptive and suggested everyone be brought back at the beginning of second quarter.
Board member Torri Anderson said it is extremely difficult to change the high school schedule and she didn’t think a reopening could be in place by Sept. 14. She said parents asked her to bring students back after the first quarter.
Board President AnnaMarie Knorr said she was experiencing the situation first-hand, with two children in K-5 and two in 6-12. With many parents looking at Sept. 8 as the start date, the mentality is “it’s almost over,” not “Let’s do this for another six weeks,” she said.
One of her favorite parts of Lopeman’s plan is having teachers either in class or online, but not both, Knorr said. “I know some are doing that,” she said. “That’s almost the impossible task.”
Human Resources Director Tom Beckett said the district is trying to coordinate with Maricopa Wellness Center to have a COVID testing blitz for district employees and their families.
Coutre said she wished the state’s guidance allowed for measuring the COVID positivity rate more locally than at the county level. Knorr reminded the board that all plans for opening classrooms are contingent on Thursday’s data.
“If the reading is not below 7% tomorrow, all of this is off the table,” she said.