Parents and students last week got their first detailed look at how different Mesa Public Schools will be as the district rolled out the first cut of its plan for reopening campuses Aug. 4.
In digital presentations that began Thursday and will continue tomorrow, June 22, and June 24, the district laid out three options for parents to choose from that include a full-time presence on campus, learning online at home or a combination of the two.
The results of surveys taken during the roll-out sessions will factor into the district's final plan, which will be released July 14 – three weeks before the first day of school Aug. 4.
But Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis and other facilitators also stressed that COVID-19 data will ultimately determine the final reopening plan – and likely influence the number of teachers who will want to return to the classroom and whether students will even be allowed on campuses Aug. 4.
“It changes rapidly,” Fourlis told the Tribune when asked about the surge in Arizona virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations over the last two weeks.
“We see restaurants that are closing. Casinos are closing. The governor might say ‘I told you you could open in the fall but let’s push the opening day back to Labor Day.'”
Under any circumstances, Aug. 4 will be the start of a school year that will bear little resemblance to previous years at all grade levels. Should campus openings be delayed, Fourlis said, online instruction will begin for all students.
That online instruction will be unavailable for an estimated 7,000 students – mostly in elementary grades but for some in junior highs – because the laptops that are being purchased through a $7 million city grant won’t arrive until September and then would have to be programmed for students’ use. Those students without a device would then continue to receive paper packets of lessons.
Even now, the surge has prompted some of MPS’ neighbors to announce changes in their original plans or initial thinking.
For example, Kyrene School District became the first in Arizona to announce a requirement that students and staff wear masks on campus. That announcement came before Gov. Doug Ducey gave municipalities and counties authority to impose mask mandates.
Tempe Union High School District dropped a fulltime presence on campus as an option, limiting choices for its 13,000 students to fulltime online learning at home or distance learning four days a week with one day in classrooms. Tempe Union also requires students and staff to wear masks.
Fourlis said MPS is still deciding whether teachers and students would be required to wear masks on campus, though kids will be required to wear them on school buses. On buses, they also will be kept socially distant, with siblings encouraged to sit together.
A survey taken in May showed that Mesa parents overwhelming favor their children returning to the classroom, while teachers were more evenly split on returning to campuses. Many of those teachers would be assigned to the online component of Mesa’s program.
But students who do return to campuses won’t be coming back to the same environment they had before the statewide school shutdown began in mid-March.
At every level, from kindergarten through senior year, they will be forced to adjust to significant changes in the school day – with much of the socializing aspects of their routine eliminated or sharply curtailed.
Two of the most telling examples of this involve lunch and extracurricular activities.
Elementary children will stay in the same room all day, even eating breakfast and lunch there.
Junior and senior high students will have to follow social distancing regulations in the hallways and in the cafeteria – meaning that their and their lunchtime friends will be sitting six feet apart.
That requirement likely will force at least high schools to have more lunch periods so the cafeterias can accommodate socially distant dining.
“In order to do that and have enough cafeteria and table space,” Fourlis said, “many of our high schools have one lunch or two lunches. We might have to go with three or four lunch periods. I told the high school principals ‘I think we’ll start with brunch.’ We might even have to open up some empty classrooms that could be designated as lunch space so they can be spread out.”
Recess at elementary schools won’t give children a chance to visit on the playground with their friends from other grades or rooms. They’ll have to stick with their classmates in controlled settings.
No junior high sports will be offered in the first quarter and while the district said it will rely on the Arizona Interscholastic Association to set rules for high school athletes, MPS will have to figure out how to handle spectators at stadiums.
That issue has not yet been resolved, but Fourlis said that if there is a football season at all, there will be no crowded bleachers as there usually are at games, especially at schools like Red Mountain and Mountain View.
As for plays, concerts, assemblies and other extracurricular offerings, they’ll either be rescheduled to a later date in the school year, modified for social distancing or held virtually.
And field trips for staff and students have been canceled, at least for the fall.
Unlike Kyrene, which eliminated both its traditional early-release Wednesdays and fall break, Mesa for now is keeping early release intact and has made no decision on fall break.
One essential aspect of all three options addresses a major concern for educators throughout the country: the social and emotional health of students and families, particularly as kids encounter the new restrictions on their activity and return from a three-month absence on campuses.
Whether it involves face-to-face or virtual interaction, Fourlis said, counseling will be available and students will have access to help.
“The social and emotional needs of our students and employees continue to be a priority,” the district stressed in its outline.
Fourlis presented the broad contours of the district’s reopening plan in the first virtual session last Thursday to about 460 people, mostly parents.
She repeatedly stressed that the specific plan for reopening is in many ways a moving target, since some requirements could be adjusted, depending on the trend in COVID-19 cases.
But given the fact that no one expects COVID-19 to disappear, it’s likely that many of the requirements in the tentative plan will likely stay in force for at least the first few months of the new school year.
What the final plan will look like beyond the broad outline being laid out now has a number of issues that still need to be worked out, Fourlis said.
Among them is student movement within junior and senior high school buildings, where hallways often are crowded between classes.
“I think that the big conversation is we’re going to have to rethink our space and what that space will look like,” Fourlis said, adding the issue still being studied.
Even more critical, Fourlis said, will be making sure there are enough teachers for students who are in the classrooms.
“The real test that we didn’t talk about today,” she said after the Thursday virtual session, “is we’re going to have to match the student requests with teacher requests.
“So let’s say 60 percent of our kids want to come back to an in-classroom environment and only 20 percent of staff feel confident about coming back in-person,” she continued. “That’s really the balancing act.”
Some of the issues awaiting resolution will depend on what option parents choose for their children’s learning.
After a plan is unveiled July 14, Fourlis said, parents likely will be given a window of time to make a selection because the district will have to make sure it has enough teachers for in-class, online and hybrid instruction.
“We need to take a look at how many of our families choose which of the different options and then that will help us put schedules together and then figure rotations,” Fourlis explained.
“So, at the elementaries, we would have our teachers coming into the classroom but at the junior high and senior levels, that would look very different because the classes are so different. An automotive class can’t be taught in an English class.”
By the end of the presentation last Thursday, the impromptu survey suggested that at least for now, parents who want their children to be on campus fulltime will not be turned off by the new normal that will be in place.
Roughly the same percentages who indicated they were looking forward to a new school year at the beginning of the session remained unchanged at the end.
But as educators have repeatedly stressed throughout East Valley schools as reopening planning and discussions continue, the devil is in the details.
And COVID-19 likely will have the final say on what those details will be.