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Parents, students and staff will get the first cut of Mesa Public Schools’ plan for reopening campuses in virtual sessions that start next Thursday.

Although she had no details for the Governing Board last week because it was meeting the day before a June 10 deadline for initial recommendations from 11 teams working on different parts of the plan, Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis told the board:

“There is a ton of work being done to study the best practices, to study the best models and to bring creative thinkers together to think about how do we open up school in the fall. And we have some very, very firm commitments to our communities that every decision that we make is designed to ensure and build their confidence. 

“And we know that in order to do that, we have to provide safe learning environments not only for our students but also for our staff and that we have to provide ample choices for our families as they come back to school in the fall.”

 Virtual meetings for staff, parents and students will be held at various times June 18, 22 and 24 to hear the initial recommendations. People can sign up at bit.ly/MPSstakeholder to register or they can text “Mesa” to 41411 to get the link.

Holly Williams, who outlined the procedure for the reopening roll-out, said the district will take the input it collects and refine the plan for a rollout sometime next month in advance of the first day of school Aug. 4.

The district is working on three plans – one for  brick-and-mortar instruction, one for online instruction for students whose parents would prefer they continue learning at home while the pandemic continues and one in case all campuses must close as they did for almost the whole fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year.

Mesa City Council is helping the district prepare for all-distance learning contingencies by allowing some of its federal pandemic relief funds to be used for purchasing laptops so that all students in first through sixth grade have them.

Although Council’s discussions of the program had focused around equipping poverty-level students with laptops, Council spokesman all students in those MPS grades would be getting the devices, though not necessarily through city funds.

Chandler Unified administrators presented its board last week with 80 pages of recommendations for reopening but no formal plan was adopted.

Kyrene School District rolled out a comprehensive plan that includes a unique K-8 Digital Academy open to students across Arizona as long as they have an internet connection. District officials said could dramatically boost their total enrollment by pulling in students across the state.

If Mesa’s reopening plan is anything like Kyrene’s brick-and-mortar plan, MPS students and parents can expect some radical changes in a typical day at school.

Some of those changes are based on a survey that found about half of all Kyrene households prefer not to send their kids back to campus amid fears of a resurgence of the coronavirus and the absence of a vaccine.

The survey prompted Kyrene to determine that social distancing in classrooms and on buses will be easier to achieve since classes will be smaller and desks can be kept 6 feet apart.

In Mesa, over 15,000 parents, 6,000 students and 5,000 employees have responded to MPS’ own surveys, according to Helen Hollands, district executive director of technology and communication, although she did not present findings to the board.

Kyrene, a K-8 district, has adopted a “containment” approach to on-campus instruction for both its elementary and middle schools – meaning students will stay in the same room all day with teachers for basic subjects rotating in and out.

However, it’s unclear if such an approach is feasible for high schools, since there are more course options available.

Masks will be optional in Kyrene, although students will have to wear them if they ride district buses to school.

Williams said teams are working hard to make sure Mesa’s plan fits the needs of all families – some of whom likely will have medically fragile children who could be at a higher risk of infection if they had to go to a school instead of learning at home.

“Everything’s going to be fine on Aug. 4,” she said. “We don’t have it all figured out yet. And we are actively working on making sure that our plan is solid.”

Williams’ description of the need for planning several options reflected the uncertainty surrounding the virus’ course.

That uncertainty is powered partly by the fact that confirmed virus cases – and hospitalizations and deaths – are all rising in Arizona since stay-at-home orders were lifted.

Moreover, experts fear an overall resurgence of the virus could hit the nation when flu season begins this fall. In anticipation of that possibility, Kyrene already has canceled fall break and advanced the start of the new school year to the end of July to cram as much learning in as possible in case a statewide school shutdown is mandated.

The MPS briefing sessions that begin next Thursday will include Spanish-speaking groups and are designed on a platform that can accommodate as many people as interested in manageable group sizes.

“At any time slot there might be four meetings happening so that they are manageable groups of people so that all voices can be heard,” Williams said, noting session times are spread across mornings, afternoons and evenings.

Williams said facilitators will first share survey results to show participants the basis for the major recommendations.

Then, she said, “We want to then show them the major ideas of these draft plans – what are the buckets that we’re coming up with – and getting our arms around it in ways like ‘this is what our cleaning protocol will look like. These are the items that will make sure happening;’ ‘This is what you can expect to see in a classroom.’”

Fourlis said that she also hopes the school board will have a chance to weigh in at a possible study session on its next meeting date, June 23.

Board President Elaine Miner also noted that some people already have emailed suggestions and concerns to the district and Interim Superintendent Peter Lesar said those are being tracked and sent to the appropriate design teams.

Those teams are studying these areas in relation to the new school year: budget/funding/resources, business and community partnerships, communication, educational innovation, family support, health and safety, instructional day logistics, personnel practices and policies, sports/specials/extracurricular activities, teaching and learning and technology.

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