Mesa Public Schools Governing Board turned to state officials last week to help it get clarity in delivering education to thousands of students amid growing concerns sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
The district immediately addressed the critical need of food insecurity among many of its 60,000 students by setting up sites at dozens of schools to hand out lunches and breakfasts. Information on those sites is at mpsaz.org/research/maps locate/map.
District officials had hoped to keep schools open, but late March 14 reversed course and canceled all classes and programs through March 27 – less than a day before Gov. Doug Ducey and state Superintendent of Schools Kathy Hoffman closed all Arizona schools until that date.
There were unconfirmed reports at press time that Ducey and Hoffman would make another announcement today, March 22. Ducey instead on Friday afternoon closed schools an additional two weeks, saying " School administrators should make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home."
In the meantime, thousands of parents in Mesa and throughout Arizona who still had jobs were left scrambling for daycare.
The MPS Governing Board at a special meeting March 17 approved a series of recommendations to state officials that covered a range of issues such as how high school seniors can wind up their year to how district employees can continue on the payroll. None of those recommendations were mentioned in the governor's order.
And while district officials indicated they were working on a plan for online instruction, no plan had yet been released.
Tempe Union and Scottsdale Unified school districts quickly ramped up online instruction for their students, although officials there said they still faced a daunting array of practical challenges that included training all teachers to conduct classes online.
MPS spokeswoman Heidi Hurst also said that despite the array of federal and state actions announced or recommended for curbing the virus’ spread, the district would continue its schedule for selecting a new superintendent.
Among the recommendations approved by the MPS Governing Board was a call to state officials that they allow less than 180-200 days of school but not cut the pay for noncertified employees.
“Without this flexibility,” the board’s resolution said, hundreds of thousands of paraprofessionals, custodians and other non-teaching staff will “experience a gap in pay that could last months, resulting in a crushing blow to families and the economy.”
“In the resolution, we are saying that we expect everyone to be available to work,” board President Elaine Miner said. “We’re expecting people to be reaching out and caring for their student community or their administrative community.”
“Now, if we go beyond being closed for two weeks,” she continued, “then there will certainly be people working from home that are preparing instructional matter, etc., with lots of people having the opportunity to be working, even if they’re not providing lunches.
“So, I think the idea that some people are sitting at home getting paid to do nothing is erroneous. We’re all doing something.”
Scott Thompson, district assistant superintendent of business and support services, added, “We don’t know how long this is going to go and it’s really hard to project a financial impact.”
Among the challenges in setting up viable online instruction for students is the fact that hundreds of them have no access to computers or internet service – an issue Tempe Union began addressing by loaning laptops to students in need.
A Pew Research study in 2019 found that 94 percent of U.S. adults with an income over $100,000 had a computer at home, but that number dropped to just 54 percent for those with an income below $30,000.
The study showed a similar gap for internet access, with broadband access at home for 94 percent of adults with incomes over $100,000 compared to just 56 percent for those with incomes below $30,000.
The Mesa board members discussed the possibility of establishing sites where parents could pick up hard copies of instructional material, though they did not formalize any plan at the meeting.
“We don’t want employees to come to their regular physical location of work unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Thompson said, adding:
“And we gave some examples of where it could be absolutely necessary: We talked about if a plumber needs to fix a sink, the plumber won’t be able to do that from home. If an air conditioning unit needs to be fixed on a school roof, that won’t be done from home.
“If we’re going to provide food for our community, somebody will have to prepare the food, and if we need to move that food through the community then somebody will have to transport that food through the community.”
Board member Marcie Hutchinson compared the current outbreak to the deadly Spanish Flu of 1918 – which killed millions of people worldwide – and said it was critical that schools remained closed.
“Could you please make sure in the communication that people understand that this is a serious situation and we must be serious about this?” Hutchinson asked. “I was a history teacher, and this is like the 1918 Spanish Flu Outbreak, and we need to make sure that this is being taken very seriously, because that’s why schools are closed.”
As they continued exploring virus-related problems, Miner said, “We have a lot of needs we haven’t even realized yet.”
One impacts special-needs students.
Thompson noted that Arizona, like other states, may seek waivers from various federal requirements, though the district would be required to maintain instructional services for special-needs children if it continues instruction for others.
“There seems to be no wavering on that commitment,” he said.
Legislation crafted by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, – a part-time teacher – and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, has no assumption that the emergency will be over by the time of this Friday’s deadline for the closure to end.
If kids are not back in school March 30, the Udall-Allen measure would suspend laws requiring a certain number of school days and instructional hours.
It also would cancel the annual statewide achievement tests for this year and ensure that the letter grades now assigned to each school do not decline.
The legislation also allows the state Board of Education to adopt rules to ensure graduation happens.
“What we figure is if a student is on track to graduate this year that we’re not going to do anything to prevent them from graduating,’’ Udall said.
Although MPS officials have said nothing, it is all but certain that districts will call off commencement ceremonies in light of recommended and mandatory restrictions on public gatherings of more than 10 people.
Some out-of-state universities already have announced plans for “virtual commencement ceremonies” online.
But the most significant part of the Udall-Allen measure would be to require public schools to offer education services “in alternative formats’’ if they want to get their state aid. And it would allow schools to continue to pay employees to work from home or perform alternative assignments through the end of the school year.
While the district is training employees to provide instruction online, school officials acknowledged that it will be a challenge and asked families to have patience.
Some districts were further along than Mesa in developing plans for online instruction – and some private companies already announced their plans to help.
Through the Cox Communications’ Connect2Compete program, qualified families can receive a month of free service ($9.95 per month after) and receive free installation and wifi setup.
Scottsdale Unified is working with PCs for People to provide discounted computers for families.
Sprint and T-Mobile are also offering unlimited data to existing customers and Comcast Xfinity is offering free use of hotspots.
High school seniors also are hard hit by the closures as they are only a couple months away from graduation.
Mesa and other districts have asked state officials to relax graduation requirements so they can get diplomas.
But with colleges and universities closed as well, it was not at all clear what their immediate future holds.