Asked about what he is hoping for in the Mesa Public Schools new year that begins Tuesday, Aug. 3, Scott Thompson chuckled and took a deep breath, searching for the words to describe a past-meets-present collision point.
“We’re hoping for normal,” the MPS assistant superintendent said days before 50,000-plus students will enter Mesa classrooms.
“Normal with new and improved options,” he quickly added.
While the fast-spreading Delta variant - said to be more contagious than the original COVID-19 - looms over the opening of schools across Arizona, Thompson and others at MPS are hopeful this will be a less chaotic year.
After more than a year of stops-and-starts caused by the pandemic, the largest school district in the state is again ready to open classroom doors.
And, hopefully, keep them open.
For parents who went through the turbulence, Thompson has a message: He gets it.
“Our twins graduated in 2020, with no graduation,” said Thompson, a father of three.
“Then, in 2021 we graduated normally but didn’t have a normal year. We didn’t have proms, didn’t have dances. My two daughters had a normal year up until March (of 2020), then things fell apart.”
His twin daughters graduated from Mountain View High, where his son is enrolled.
“He was remote all last year. Now he gets to be back (in classrooms) all year,” Thompson said.
He said his son had an up-and-down year of online schooling: “The first semester was rough for him, which was true for the district. We were figuring it out, kids were figuring it out. The second semester went a lot better. He figured out how the rhythm of how (remote learning) went.
“And we figured out how to do it better.”
His hope for his son and the rest of the district’s students as the 2021-22 school year fast approaches:
“All of our hope is that it’s going to be as normal as possible,” Thompson said.
“At the same time, we are trying to create some new norms. … A lot of kids chose to be remote, (others) took the opportunity to come back during summer school. I’m just hoping all these things out there that can disrupt the next year don’t happen.”
According to a July 16 post on the Harvard School of Public Health:
“With COVID-19 cases doubling in the U.S. in the past two weeks, experts think that infection rates will continue to increase, and that the unvaccinated, including children, and the most vulnerable of the vaccinated - the elderly and the immunocompromised - will be most at risk.”
And, according to a Yale Medicine post in mid-June, “A recent study from the United Kingdom showed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with Delta.”
While there is some evidence that Pfizer and Moderna vaccines protect against severe reactions hospitalization and death, children under 12 in Arizona are not eligible for a vaccine.
Even if the variant or other factors cause a coronavirus outbreak in MPS schools, the district will have one less tool to deal with it since state law now bans mask mandates and forced vaccinations.
Students are not prohibited from wearing masks in school.
Asked about the district’s response to the statewide mask ban, MPS spokeswoman Heidi Hurst released a statement that said, “The district is confident in its classroom-by-classroom and school-by-school strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
Gov. Doug Ducey recently chided Peoria Unified and another district for different standards in potential quarantines of vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff. Thompson said if an outbreak happens at a school, or even in a class, the MPS quarantine guidelines are the same for all students, regardless of vaccination status.
New this year
One of the new things this year at MPS is an offshoot of the “remote learning” that began when campuses were closed at the height of the pandemic.
The refined learn-at-home program is called Mesa Virtual Campus, “a synchronous campus online.”
“It’s going to build off the second semester, where high schools and all campuses we had dedicated (remote) teachers. Kids had a bell schedule they followed at home...in real time, like we’re doing now,” Thompson said.
After looking at successes and failures of remote learning, “Now we’re trying to build on that and be more successful,” he added.
He estimated 1,500 students are enrolled in Mesa Virtual Campus, adding students even as young as kindergarten-age can enroll in the virtual program any time before Tuesday, Aug. 3.
After an 8 percent decline in enrollment last year, Thompson is hoping the district student population rebounds.
At the end of the 2020 school year, 60,851 students were enrolled at MPS.
By the end of the 2021 school year, that number dropped to 56,091.
Thompson declined to give a ballpark estimate of enrollment. “We don’t know who’s returning or not until the first day of school, ‘’ he said, adding, “If 50 percent (of the enrollment loss) returns, that would be a win. I just believe these students may be somewhere else, and not left Mesa … Maybe their families went through such trauma, maybe they had to move across town.”
Then there are the “redshirt students,” whose parents decided to hold them back a year before starting kindergarten in the turbulent 2020.
“Hey, I totally understand that. ‘It’s too crazy, we’re going to keep our kids at home until things settle down,’” Thompson said.
“It’s been a tough two years, everyone’s exhausted,” he said.
But, with optimism for a “normal” school year, teachers and staff at MPS are recharged, he added.
Students returning to campuses around the district may see some buildings that weren’t there, when they left for the summer.
And many will note bulldozers moving earth, dump trucks hauling gravel and construction workers nail-gunning and jack hammering throughout the next few months.
Fueled by voter-approved bonds, massive, multi-million-dollar projects are “modernizing” an aging MPS.
“We’ve got a lot of projects going on throughout the district, (including) the Mountain View and Mesa high modernizations, which will total $35 million when all is said and done,” Thompson said.
Mountain View students will learn in a new main academic building: “It will be ‘done ish.’ … It’s a really neat project; it took two months to get done and 140-plus workers,” Thompson said.
Mesa High’s science, tech and Career and Technical Education (CTE) building “won’t be ready for months,” he added.
Mountain View, Mesa and Red Mountain high schools are getting artificial turf for their athletic stadium. The district’s other three high schools will get fake grass as well, but not until next summer.
And, Thompson said, “Several elementary schools are getting upgrades for security.”
Over the summer, 311 rooftop HVAC units were installed. “The new devices are to improve air quality. Hopefully, that addresses viruses and things in the air -- not just COVID, but better air quality for everybody,” Thompson said.
Unlike other districts, MPS avoided laying off teachers.
In Mesa, three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds will total around $240 million.
“ESSER1 really helped us keep people employed,” Thompson said.
With the second round, MPS focused on “remediation strategies for kids. … summer school, extended day learning, new assessment tools.
“ESSER 3, the big one, is what we are focused on right now: How are you going to do school differently?”
He said the district is reaching out to the community it serves on how to spend an estimated $160 million to reinvent education in what will — hopefully— be a post-pandemic environment.