After an emotional and marathon 6-hour meeting, Mesa Public Schools Governing Board voted 3-2 to begin a gradual reopening of campuses when county health officials’ COVID-19 data indicates it’s safe to do so.
The data and its timeliness were subjects that consumed nearly half the meeting – including an hour-long closed-door session – as board member Jenny Richardson passionately argued for a full return to classrooms more quickly and her four colleagues asserted equally strongly for a cautious approach to reopening.
Richardson and board President Elaine Miner voted against a resolution that states if the county data favors reopening, Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis can begin preparing schools for it – a process that will take two weeks.
If the county’s virus metrics by Sept. 3 indicate reopening remains potentially dangerous, the board on Sept. 8 will discuss next steps.
But Richardson noted that the data is already 12 days old when it is posted on the county health department’s website – and said the earliest Mesa schools might reopen could be Sept. 17, if even then.
“I think there is danger in waiting and I think the danger is real,” said Richardson.
Noting she is the only board member with children currently in Mesa schools, Richardson said:
“I send my children to public school for at least 10 reasons and only one of them is content curriculum and remote learning is only addressing that one and it’s doing a fairly poor job of it – not because the teachers are not working hard because everybody’s trying their hardest – but because it’s not the way so many of our students learn.”
But board member Marcie Hutchinson, stressing concern for the safety of both students and staff, said:
“I think going gradually and carefully will make sure that we open to stay open and we prevent the chaos and disruption that would happen if we’d have to close again. I don’t want to close again. I want to open for real and I want to give our students the best opportunity to form relationships with their teachers to really get into a learning environment and stay in that learning environment.”
The board’s emotions – and division – mirror those in the community, which bombarded the board with hundreds of emails, mostly about reopening.
More than 1,000 people watched the meeting online.
That divide prompted Miner to express her distress at some of the emails and phone calls the district has received in recent weeks.
“What I have seen happen the last few weeks and months is a division that really frightens me,” said Miner. “It’s very disconcerting on many levels.”
“We don’t want parents to feel like the teachers are working against them to get back in school. That’s something that weighs heavy on my mind. And then on the other hand, we have parents who are suffering and they are very frustrated. They’re trying to juggle jobs and I see this in my own grandchildren.”
“I have compassion for both sides and when I get emails or people report to me that social media is saying such horrible things about individual board members, it’s disheartening… We are doing what we think are conscience tells us is good.”
While the board devoted most of its time to discussing reopening and the county’s virus metrics, it wasn’t the only pandemic-related issue on its plate last Wednesday.
The board also:
• Heard a detailed plan for opening schools to “kids with no place to go,” mostly those in special education programs, this Wednesday – 10 days past the date that Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order said districts were supposed to reopen campuses for such students.
• Was told the city-funded purchase of about 7,000 laptops for needy kids has been delayed because of international supply-chain disruptions until close to the end of the semester. There was no board discussion on how those students will be served in the meantime.
• Approved a dress-code policy for students that mandates masks for students in grades K-12 when they’re on campus or on a school bus. Those with medical issues could be excused and students could remove the masks on playgrounds if social distancing can be observed. Masks also will be required of all parents and other visitors to campuses during the daytime or at any district event, like a school play.
• Listened to administration officials outline the limited circumstances under which a teacher can refuse to return to the classroom if they fear COVID-19 infection. Unless they qualify for a special program such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, they must either come to work or resign, they said.
That choice likely won’t face special education teachers as some students return to campuses on Wednesday.
Theresa Baca, assistant superintendent for special education, said the district cannot accommodate all the estimated 10,000 students with some kind of disability qualifying them for special education services.
But she explained how the district will serve a “small group” of children with more severe disabilities who need learning and other therapies they can’t get online.
Baca said a district survey found that 83 percent of teachers and 77 percent of instructional assistants involved in special education programs were amenable to returning to the classroom but only 47 percent of students or their parents favored that option.
That means, she said, the district would not need all special-ed instructors on campus. That would render teachers’ choice between coming to work or resigning a moot matter.
As for the proportion of parents with special-needs youngsters who want their kids in distance learning, board member Kiana Maria Sears said, “It makes sense to me that they’d be fairly split because a lot of those students have some underlying health conditions that would make their families want to keep them isolated from anyone as long as possible.”
The board’s meeting was bookended by lengthy discussions about the Maricopa County Public Health Department’s recently released benchmarks aimed at helping districts determine when it is safe to open.
Those benchmarks – which districts are not required to follow – prompted Gilbert Public Schools to decide it will allow students on campus Sept. 8 on a twice weekly schedule based on the first initial of their last name and fully reopen for five-day in-person learning two weeks later.
County health officials break down that data by ZIP code as well as school district boundaries at maricopa.gov/5594/School-Metrics and have a three-color guide and map – in red, yellow and green – based on three sets of data.
Those data sets include the number of positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people; the percentage of positive new tests; and the percentage of hospital visits showing COVID-19 symptoms.
Green indicates an optimal opportunity for reopening schools while yellow suggests a hybrid approach as Gilbert is doing and red indicating full online learning.
Associate Superintendent Holly Williams said that the county metrics showed that the area within MPS boundaries showed the district was in the “green zone” on only one of the three benchmarks. The other two are in the red. The county also advises the metrics should show no upward change for two weeks.
Richardson said the numbers are already 12 days old when it is posted online at 4 p.m. every Thursday and the reality of virus spread could be far more favorable than what the county has on its site.
She also noted that even if ZIP codes within district boundaries pass all three benchmarks, there is no guarantee that benchmarks are favorable for students attending Mesa schools from ZIP codes outside those boundaries.
Board member Steven Peterson said he was content with the county data – for now – and suggested that virus trends from other states and additional information on virus spread in Arizona may make him change his mind.
“I am carefully sitting tight at the moment,” he said, “but I’m not comfortable with just locking myself into that without considering other factors. I am gravely concerned about those kids.”
“It just drives me crazy but it really is the thing that troubles me the most,” he continued. “No matter which way we go, we are exposing a group of kids or exposing teachers to COVID-19 if we open it up and we’re creating greater risk of suicide and other issues – falling behind and dropping out – if we leave it shut and so it’s not like we have a choice that is obvious.”