No one could argue that the first day of school at Mesa’s East Valley Institute of Technology was normal – that is not possible during a pandemic.
Precautions, such as wearing masks and socially distancing, are the bedrock of EVIT’s plan to strike a delicate balance between a student’s right to learn and protecting staff and students from COVID-19.
But, if nothing else, a return to auto shop, welding and culinary classes last week marked a return to a normal routine for students while helping them prepare for the workplace with marketable skills.
“It will get easy to get lulled into this idea that things are back to normal, but it’s not,’’ EVIT Superintendent Chad Wilson said. “Every day has to be like first day,’’ with strict adherence to the safety protocols.
He said it was essential that the technical school return to “hands-on learning,’’ noting the difficulty of teaching someone how to weld or rebuild an engine online.
EVIT, with 4,465 high school students enrolled for the 2020-21 school year, reopened for in-person learning on Aug. 17, becoming an East Valley trailblazer along with the Queen Creek schools.
“We have some built-in advantages. One of our disadvantages is the hands-on learning,’’ Wilson said, with an instructor potentially working under the hood of a car or truck with a student, dental students sticking their fingers into other students’ mouths or a budding hair stylist within inches of another person.
Nevertheless, 3,988 enrolled students – 89.3 percent –showed up for classroom learning. That included 679 of the 787 Mesa Public Schools students who comprise the largest number of students from the 11 school districts that feed into EVIT. In addition, 443 of 616 charter, private and home-schooled students attended as well.
“I think our students are ecstatic to come back,’’ Wilson said. “We have had quite a bit of support from parents and students.’’
EVIT students attend one 2 ½ hour class a day. They get off a bus, operated by the feeder districts and walk directly to class following a route identified by signs.
The idea is to limit COVID’s spread by eliminating congestion and enforce the six-foot distance between students. After class, the students jump back on the bus to go home.
An exposure is defined by the Centers for Disease Control as 15 minutes or more within six feet of person positive for COVID-19, he said.
So, no milling about in hallway or hanging out in a school cafeteria is allowed. Students walk corridors in an orderly single line with space between them, wearing masks.
To compensate for the risks of working in close quarters during some classes, instructors are required to spend no more than 15 minutes in close proximity with students – or to add extra layers of protection when that is unavoidable, Wilson said.
Dental students follow the same procedures used in dental offices, wearing masks and gloves.
Desks and chairs also are spaced six-feet apart, with classes extending into a second room when necessary to meet the social distancing requirements.
Classrooms and equipment are sanitized between the morning and afternoon classes, and after classes wrap up for the day, to protect against the possibility of spreading COVID-19.
Although the protocols represent a change from the usual, everyone seems to be embracing them so far, Wilson said.
A call to EVIT from a parent about a sick student now prompts a round of contact-tracing to ensure other students have not been exposed. EVIT experienced no signs of COVID-19 initially, but as Wilson said, it’s unrealistic to think an entire school year will pass without someone contracting the virus.
“Our goal is to have a system in place to mitigate the spread,’’ Wilson said.
Wilson detects a combination of excitement and apprehension when he speaks to students about their return to classes.
A majority of speakers at the EVIT Governing Board’s Aug. 10 meeting supported reopening the campus, with only one staffer against it.
Parents also spoke in favor of reopening, saying their children were looking forward to attending classes after the long COVID-19 break, which started in March.
“They feel lost. I have talked to many young people who are desperate to get back to the classroom. They feel this is lost time,’’ said Steve Trussell, executive director of the Arizona Rock Products Association and a former Mesa teacher.
Dr. Jarilynne Merrill, who has three children enrolled in Mesa Public Schools, said authorities need to look at the big picture when deciding whether to reopen schools, weighing the risks of COVID-19 against the anxiety of staying home in an age bracket prone to suicide.
Merrill, who works in a detox center and whose husband is a psychiatrist, said she is not downplaying the dangers posed by COVID-19.
“The danger to the community at large is largely behind us,’’ Merrill told the board, citing county Department of Public Health data. “We are going to see a wave of suicides that will make COVID look like nothing.’’
“I’m not advocating that we throw all the kids back in school. I think the decision should be left to individual families,’’ Merrill said. “I think the benefits we offer our students are far more attainable at school, not at home on a computer.’’
Vanessa Lewis, a parent, said her daughter is looking forward to attending cosmetology school. She said teachers who are uncomfortable returning to the classroom should teach online, but that students need to return to school.
“What kind of example are we setting if we don’t have the courage to teach them in a classroom,’’ Lewis said. “Every single mom I have spoken with has said the children are suffering, the entire family unit is suffering.’’
Jim McNamara, a retired firefighter and fire sciences teacher, said he has confidence in the safety protocols working if they are followed properly.
“We are very dependent on being on campus, teaching the kids the skills they need,’’ McNamara said. “I feel we will lose a lot of students if we don’t return to school.’’
Julie Bird, a registered occupational therapist and an anatomy teacher, warned against the infection rate in Maricopa County and said some staff members were “not on the same page’’ as the administration, with one man not wearing a mask on campus.
She said all staff members need to wear masks and send a consistent message to students, or the protocols will be ineffective.
“Keep the politics and personal beliefs out of the equation,” Bird said. “This is solely a medical situation.”