Assuming COVID-19 metrics for the district continue a downward trend, Mesa Public Schools is prepared to reopen campuses Sept. 14 for partial classroom learning.
Parents and their children should prepare for a myriad of changes in the school day routine, ranging from a “non-negotiable” mandatory mask rule to a complex schedule that determines what students will be on campuses on what days.
Those changes were but a few that the Governing Board and administration plumbed in head-spinning fashion for four hours. And even that amount of time left numerous questions by the board unanswered.
The length of the discussion reflected the complex task that has consumed Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis and her team as they continue trying to balance the need for in-class learning with the need to protect the lives and health of more than 50,000 children and thousands of teachers and other employees.
That task has been made no easier by the most recent data on COVID-19 in the district released last Thursday by the Maricopa County Public Health Department and the seemingly contradictory interpretation of coronavirus data between the county and the state.
While the data released last Thursday – two days after the Governing Board’s meeting – indicated the overall level of COVID-19 in the district was “moderate,” ZIP code data for Mesa showed four ZIP codes with a “substantial” virus level.
Meanwhile, the state Health Services Department said its interpretation of data statewide indicated that partial in-classroom learning was warranted in only four counties in Arizona. Maricopa County is not among them.
Neither Maricopa County’s benchmarks nor the state’s interpretation of virus data are mandatory.
“What we heard from our stakeholder conversations over the summer from school leaders is they wanted to have flexibility to work with their communities,’’ said Education Department spokesman Ritchie Taylor, citing a belief that the state should defer to the extent possible to the locally elected school board members
“Mandates can work both ways,’’ Taylor said. “We wanted schools to be able to decide, even if they met the benchmarks, that if they wanted to continue to do distance learning that they could make that decision for themselves.’’
MPS’ partial reopening of campuses will be no less complicated than the interpretations of COVID-19 spread as the district begins implementing a plan that Gilbert Public Schools will put in motion on Sept. 8 as neighboring Higley opens for five-day classroom instruction the same day.
All three districts are considered to be in the “moderate” category for the virus – which the county deems safe for partial in-class instruction.
Under MPS’ plan, students can be in classrooms two days a week and learn at home the other three days.
The complicated part comes into play as the result of the need to reduce the number of students on campus on any given day.
To accomplish that, students will be divided into an “A” and “B” schedule defined by the two halves of the alphabet. The "A" group will be in classrooms Monday and Thursday while the "B" group will be on campus Tuesday and Friday. Parents are to be notified which group their kids are in.
Since an undetermined number of students are expected to remain in all-online learning, district officials expect less than half of a school’s total population would be on campus on any of those four days.
Wednesday is reserved for online learning for all students as teachers work with small groups of pupils, hold office hours, plan course work and engage in professional learning.
The district also is surveying parents to get a clear idea of how many want their children in classrooms twice a week. An earlier survey this summer indicated that three quarters of parents want in-class learning.
Board President Elaine Miner called the overall plan “mind boggling,” telling Assistant Superintendent Arlinda Mann, “The logistics, as you’re describing, that we’re going to keep families together through all levels – meaning elementary, junior high and high school – sound impossible to me. Do you have software that’s going to figure that out?”
Miner noted the many variables involved in those logistics make it difficult to ensure that all children in the same household will be going to school on the same day.
She also noted some parents may find the district’s in-class schedule doesn’t agree with theirs.
The bottom line, Miner said: “I also want to be realistic and let parents know that there is not a guarantee that this is going to work out for everyone and that they need to be understanding that we’re doing the best we can.”
Mann said principals in high schools and junior highs would work with elementary schools to try to keep children from the same households on campuses on the same days. But she also conceded that may not work out for everyone.
The district’s shift to partial in-class learning is being made possible by a continuing downward trend in the three benchmarks for COVID-19.
The 12-day-old data are broken into three benchmarks that measure the number of positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, the percentage of positive results from new COVID-19 tests and the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms.
As of Aug. 27, MPS’ metrics for cases per 100,000 and for positive test results were in a “moderate,” or yellow, category – which the county says is acceptable for partial in-classroom learning. Hospital visits were in the “minimal” category.
When all three categories are at that minimal, or green, level, the county advises that five-day in-class learning can be considered.
The county also advises districts to monitor the weekly benchmarks to ensure there is no upward trend in any of the three categories.
Fourlis told the Governing Board that unless some upward trend occurs in the next two weeks, the hybrid model can kick into gear Sept. 14.
She said it’s uncertain when the district might begin full five-day in-class learning, but noted the district would give parents a two-week notice ahead of time.
The Governing Board also discussed in great length how the school day on campus will be different.
Masks will be mandated from the moment that yellow bus pulls up to the curb.
“When the bus pulls up, the first thing the driver’s going to do is check for a mask,” said Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson. “If a student’s not wearing a mask, we’re going to have masks available. Then Johnny’s going to basically proceed to the back of the bus. We’re going to load to the back so that kids aren’t walking past each other as they load onto the bus.”
Students will sit apart from each other to ensure some social distancing.
Asked by board member Marcie Hutchinson if monitors will ride the buses to ensure compliance with the mask and social distancing requirements, Thompson replied:
“I’m going to say at this point hiring those folks, getting them trained and getting them on board will be a challenge. We’ll have to wait and see. Is it a possibility? Yes, when we have them. I can’t guarantee that at this moment. So, in essence what we’re seeing is that … the monitoring of the students and making sure that they’re following the protocols is going to be left up to the bus driver.”
Thompson also said he hopes that parents and older students on the bus can be helpful.
Unless they have received a medical waiver from the district, Associate Superintendent Holly Williams said, masks “are not negotiable” and required. Parents who refuse to wear a mask when they drop by a school will be told to wait outside.
Williams added that the limited number of students on campus now in specialized learning programs have not balked at masks and that they understand their importance. She added there likely would be breaks during the day when students
As they went over the protocols that will govern students’ movements on campus, the intensive cleaning and sanitizing routines and how the district will handle a COVID outbreak in a school, Hutchinson raised another issue that also was cited by several parents in emails – ventilation.
“As we learn more about this virus,” Hutchinson said, “we know that it’s airborne and that being airborne, it can provide many pathways of contagion even between classrooms. And so, I too am concerned about poor ventilation and extremely long exposure times particularly because it’s hot and we’re going to be using air conditioning for a very long time.”
She noted many of MPS’s schools have no windows – a concern expressed at board meetings recently in other districts.
Thompson said, “We’ve put a heavy investment into upgrading our systems. Millions of dollars have been spent replacing air conditioning systems this summer throughout the district in multiple locations.”
Unlike other districts and businesses such as movie houses that have switched to highly effective MERV 13 air filters, Thompson said MPS can’t use them.
“We are unable to use those filters because they restrict the airflow so significantly that they would cause damage and can result in our systems failing,” he said.
He said that while researchers have found COVID-19 in ventilation systems, “it is not transmitted that way.”
“It doesn’t mean we just ignore it but there has not been a definitive scientific proof it is being passed through the ventilation system,” Thompson continued, noting the CDC recommends fresh air.
He likened schools’ air-conditioning systems to those in vehicles, where the air is recycled until it reaches a specified temperature and then begins drawing in fresh air.
But he conceded “that’s going to be tricky” with Arizona’s hot temperatures.
“It takes a lot of mechanical systems working at their highest efficiency to do that and you can only bring in so much fresh air at that point,” he continued, adding:
“As of things cool down, we will be able to bring more fresh air in but I can’t say today, in August, that we’ll be bringing in more fresh air because it will ultimately lead to the room heating up.”
And that, he said, would impact body temperatures and compromise people’s immune system.
“It goes back to our mask policy because it’s about COVID-19 becoming airborne and if the masks are helping with that, then we are less likely to have those droplets being sucked up into our air conditioning systems and then dispersed into other areas," Thompson said.
"But at the end of the day, I can’t guarantee anybody that something like that can’t happen. These are just the facts on the ground and people will have to make decisions about what they feel comfortable with regards to our buildings.”
As for ventilation on buses, he later said, “We’re going to have the AC running… We’re going to try to keep as much fresh air coming in and will crack a few windows just slightly.”
Thompson's explanation prompted Hutchinson to note that there are no solid guarantees against virus spread and that when it comes to having children breathing that air in a classroom, “it’s going to have to be a parental decision.” ′