Mesa Public Schools Governing Board members last week expressed worries, concerns and hopes during their first detailed briefing on the district’s still-developing plan for reopening campuses Aug. 4.
The district’s decision to require most students and staff to wear masks on campus triggered a concern about the mandate’s impact on enrollment since a significant portion of parents oppose it.
The thought of young grade-schoolers tackling online classes sparked worries about their ability to learn as well as they would in a classroom.
Still others fretted over whether social distancing protocols in the shadow of a surge in COVID-19 were robbing children of the social benefits of going to school.
The concerns came as MPS administrators underscored the daunting number of details still to be addressed before they finalize a reopening plan and present it to the public on July 14.
But even the details that were more or less ironed out caused a justifiable angst fueled largely by some of the results of the feedback the district got from two different surveys.
One survey was conducted early this month in which 27,000 parents, students and staff responded.
The other survey comprised feedback from the 721 parents and community members, 45 students and 637 MPS staffers who listened to the June 18 presentation of the preliminary reopening plan. Feedback from the June 22 and June 24 presentations had not yet been analyzed.
The broader survey showed while 60 percent of parents want their kids in the classroom in August, 40 percent said they’d be less likely to send them to MPS classrooms if students are required to wear masks.
After hearing the district will require students to wear masks in most cases – unless, for example, for medical reasons – board member Steven Peterson said he was “deeply concerned” about parents taking their kids out of MPS schools.
Noting the absence of data on what charters and competing districts are doing on the issue of mandatory face masks, Peterson said:
“I’m not sure that we’ve really listened to the parents with what you’ve presented in the sense that the vast majority of parents did not want face coverings. But yet we’re saying we want face coverings. Somehow we’re not in synch with what parents are telling you.
“It sounds like to me you’ve taken the safe road and I understand why. I think it’s great if we could do that, but I’m not sure, as I’ve mentioned before, that the free enterprise system is going to allow us to do that … I’m gravely concerned that our parents will choose other options for that.”
Board member Jenny Richardson added another concern to that.
Calling masks “a lightning rod of strong feeling both pro and con,” Richardson said her “number one concern” over a mask requirement, especially for elementary students, was more basic and applied to more than just masks.
“My number one concern is that it in our effort to be safe, you may be hampering the ability for our elementary school students to enjoy school,” she said.
She noted that elementary kids will stay in the same classroom even for lunch, won’t be allowed to mingle with friends and children from other classes and grades during recess and will largely be forbidden from congregating.
That runs contrary to the nature of little kids, Richardson said, saying they like being in close contact with others.
“My concern is that we’re balancing safety with practicality and with parents’ desire for what they want their campus to look like,” she said.
But board member Marcie Hutchinson said she was concerned that “while it seems like we’re focusing on parent choice, we don’t have school if we don’t have employees.” She noted that a number of employees have compromised immune systems or live in multi-generational households with high-risk older relatives.
"I think while it’s very important to listen to parents,” Hutchinson continued, “we also have to listen to scientists and those that would create a safe working environment where our employees will come back to work.
“We have to remember that we have a teacher shortage. We have a bus driver shortage. We have an aides shortage and what I’m not seeing in the plan is the voice of employees and I’ve had some emails on that as well.”
Hutchinson also noted that the number of students overwhelmed the number of sinks in schools where they could even wash their hands.
“We don’t have nearly enough places for frequent hand-washing or more sanitizing to take place,” Hutchinson said, calling bathrooms “germ havens” and fearing hand-sanitizing will be a particular problem in high schools.
Since students would have to use water bottles, Hutchinson also worried if needy families with multiple children in the district will be able to afford enough water bottles and masks.
Board member Kiana Sears said she was “very impressed” with the interactive nature of many online programs for grades K-6 offered by companies.
Dr. Tracy Yslas, executive director of teaching and learning, said the district is finishing negotiations with those providers and will be integrating their products with the district’s platforms to better align the online and classroom curriculums.
But Richardson expressed concern that some teachers would have to juggle between classroom and online instruction in the hybrid model that combines both types of learning.
She said a modified classroom-online model would be better on a daily morning-afternoon basis rather than having classroom instruction a couple days and online learning other days.
She felt that a morning-afternoon schedule would make it easier for teachers to ensure consistency in what students are learning.
Peterson was especially concerned about the quality of the all-online instruction for K-6 students.
Yslas appeared to agree with Peterson, who said parents criticized the quality of K-6 online programming in the last quarter of the 2019-20 school year.
She said the district has had more time to develop a more effective program, although Richardson wondered how those children “will feel part of their neighborhood school.”
“Can they get what they need to be successful?” she asked, adding “There’s a huge learning curve for teachers” as well.
Added Hutchinson: “It’s not only a huge learning curve for teachers but my goodness, for parents. The parent is going to have to learn how to operate the device…We’re going to have to train not only our teachers but train our parents.”
All these and other concerns eventually prompted board President Elaine Miner to say: “The governing board doesn’t have all the answers.”
“We’re just watching this unfold the exact same way as all of our parents,” she continued. “This is a community effort and we’re trying to make the best of a very, very challenging and difficult situation that just got laid upon us at a moment’s notice.”
And with still many details that needed to be addressed, Miner worried about how the fourth quarter closures and the coming new rules for being on campus will affect students’ emotional and mental health.
“I know we’ve heard from some experts on why all of these protocols are very important but there’s also experts that are coming out and talking about the social emotional issues that they are very very concerned about, that they are watching occur during this isolation,” she said.
She worried about the impact of social-distancing protocols that keep kids from mingling with friends from another class on the playground or in the cafeteria and said:
“It isn’t just learning in school that takes place. There is a social-developmental piece to going to school that we want to make sure we’re not extracting when we are trying to put in all of our place all of these protocols.”
“I look at the social emotional well-being of our children and over the summer,” she said. “I have been observing how challenging it has been for some children to be isolated from other children and how this is affecting their morale there. Some kids are getting more depressed.”
She said she worried “if we become so sterile that we forget one of the big reasons we have them come together and why they choose not to have online school – because there’s so many benefits from being in a social setting and social setting means contact, being closer. So, I understand that that is where the challenge lies.”