Mesa Public School Plexiglass screens

Plexiglass screens will be erected on the desks of Mesa Public School students who can't wear a mask when they return to campuses.

With the first day of the 2020-21 school year beginning Tuesday, Aug. 4, Mesa Public Schools officials, teachers and support staff say they’re ready to provide a revamped learning experience for students.

With the reopening of campuses for most students still uncertain, several thousand training courses were administered for teachers at all grade levels, the MPS Governing Board was told last week.

As of July 27, high school teachers alone completed over 1,200 modules in Canvas, the main interface for students to access coursework when school begins.

Tracy Yslas, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning, said junior high teachers completed over 400 modules. 

The largest number of completed modules involved elementary school teachers, who will also utilize a new platform called Florida Virtual Learning for their students’ remote studies. Yslas said they completed over 4,700 Canvas training sessions. 

“We only have a little over 2,000 elementary teachers,” Yslas said. “Everyone has really committed to learning and participating and muddling through. We know it’s not always going to be a perfect world for everyone, but we are here to support each other and teachers in particular have stepped up to really support one another through all of that.”

Theresa Baca, the district’s executive director of special education, said special education teachers also took part in the Canvas training modules. 

She said district counselors jumped in and immediately began training to prepare for the school year. 

Baca acknowledged the fears of parents of special education students who are concerned their children will receive adequate education and meet the goals spelled out in their individual education plans.

Over last few weeks, Baca said they’ve met one-on-one with families to help them understand the support they would receive and to design other opportunities to enhance the success of their students. 

“I think remote learning preparation is a little bit for everybody, including all of us,” Baca said. “But also, our students, our staff as they come back and our parents as they look for a sense of calm and how we are going to help their students.”

The reopening of campuses for any student who wants to be in a classroom remains in doubt in Mesa – as it does for students in most Arizona districts.

Under Gov. Doug Ducey’s latest executive order, districts will have to decide when to reopen, using guidelines that the state is supposed to release by Friday, Aug. 7.

But the order also requires the district to provide in-class instruction for any parent who has no place else to send their children, as well as special education and English Learner students.

The state Auditor General’s latest report says special education and English learner students together account for about a fifth of the district’s total population of about 60,000 students.

Mesa Public Schools officials are back “in the brainstorming phase right now” to figure out how to accommodate in-person classes, Superintendent Andi Fourlis told Cronkite News last week.

“We just need to get additional guidance, and then we need to work with our school-level leaders to see what that will look like,” Fourlis said.

“We are reinventing the educational model just about every day,” Fourlis said.

One of the district’s largest hurdles in providing remote learning involves student access to a district-issued device and internet service.

Distribution of laptops began on July 23 with high school and junior high students as well as those from Crismon and Whittier elementary schools. 

Over two days, nearly 8,500 devices were handed out to students. The district all last week and over 6,000 devices were handed out on July 27 alone. 

Mesa’s Chief Technology Officer David Sanders told the Governing Board July 28 that he believed nearly 18,000 devices had been handed out in four days. 

“We still have about three days and 42 other schools to hand out devices to,” Sanders said. “We are getting there.”

According to a district survey of parents, seven percent, or nearly 3,500 students, do not have internet access. However, over 4,000 K-6 parents said they would explore registering in the district’s Xplore Enrichment Centers, which provides help to students conducting online work and gives them internet access to do so. 

The district’s survey also asked parents how many students would rely on schools for meals on a daily basis. About 26 percent said they would come for meals most days, while another 18 percent said they would come some days. 

Helen Hollands, the executive director of technology and communication, said the survey helped give the district an idea of how many students would need extra assistance while in online learning. 

“We want to make sure we plan accordingly for the demand we might have based on the governor’s executive order,” Hollands said. 

Also becoming clearer last week were the measures the district plans to take to ensure the safety of students and teachers.

The governor’s order requires all students and staff at reopened campuses to wear masks – a mandate MPS already had planned to enforce both in schools and on school buses. 

But for students who for medical reasons can’t wear masks, the board approved the purchase of 1,000 clear partitions manufactured by Flywheel. 

The three-sided partitions will be placed on the desks of students who are unable to wear masks. 

The total cost for 1,000 partitions is nearly $52,000, and the district could buy more in the future based upon need. 

Each partition is constructed with 4mm corrugated plastic polypropylene. The two side panels are 16 inches wide and the panel that will go across the front of the student’s desk is 22 inches wide. All three panels are clear and 23 inches high. 

The purchase comes on the heels of Ducey’s announcement that state health officials will provide data-focused benchmarks for schools to make their reopening decisions.

Those benchmarks will largely

involve virus-related data in individual communities. 

Fourlis said at a prior board meeting she did not anticipate any of the district’s schools would be opening by Aug. 17 – a date that state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman also considered unlikely. 

While Fourlis did not offer any specifics surrounding a possible date to reopen, she reaffirmed her and the board’s position of having to make crucial decisions in the coming weeks to determine when it is safe to allow students back into classrooms. 

“I want our community to know we are being diligent,” Fourlis said. “We have some big decisions to make ahead of us as we think about what those metrics look like to safely open schools. That has been our commitment to open schools when it is safe to do so.”

The board’s next meeting on Aug. 11 will be after those benchmarks are rolled out by the state.

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