When schools shuttered in March across Arizona in an attempt to stymie the spread of COVID-19, district officials had no way of knowing that it would become a monthslong uphill battle they were still fighting ahead of the fall semester.
The virus has permeated nearly every facet of Chandler USD between March and July. From the implementation of distance learning to crafting a budget for the 2020-21 school year, district officials are having to find new and creative ways to educate students and not break the bank.
“Educators and school districts across the state—and across the country—are building the plane as they fly it,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations with the Arizona School Board Association.
Chandler USD announced plans July 1 for all students to return to school Aug. 5 in some online format—either the district’s Chandler Online Academy for the students that would remain online for at least one quarter or Google Classroom for students who would start online then return to brick-and-mortar classrooms when schools reopen. The announcement came after an order from the governor delayed the start of in-person classes until at least Aug. 17.
Both options have significant impacts on the district’s proposed 2020-21 budget, Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said. The district was given $3.2 million from the state in coronavirus relief to be used at the end of the 2019-20 school year and through the 2020-21 school year—and expended all of that and then some purchasing laptops for students and teachers.
The school board approved the purchase of 2,600 laptops for a total of $3.38 million in June, using both coronavirus relief funds and funding from the district’s 2019 bond.
“My opinion is that the virtual, or online option, is even more expensive than in person,” said Superintendent Camille Casteel. “When you are making sure children all have access to devices and internet and bandwidth in a home—those are even more costly items. It’s just going to cost more money no matter what direction we move. We have to have training for our teachers for virtual or online options, it’s a different way of teaching and engaging students. There needs to be a lot of training and that doesn’t come cheap. There is no one way that is less expensive, in my opinion. [Online learning is] going to take creativity, resources, time and money.”
Budgeting for online and in-person
Gov. Doug Ducey in late June signed an executive order offering flexibility in how a district’s average daily membership is calculated, allowing districts to breathe a sigh of relief as the budget would, at least, remain stable in uncertain times. The average daily membership is how the state of Arizona calculates how much money to allocate to a school district and is based on in-person attendance of students.
With the new executive order, districts won’t receive less funding if a student is enrolled online. The governor’s office stipulated that a student receiving Arizona Online Instruction will still count for less than a student attending school in person, but that the state will backfill the difference with coronavirus relief dollars.
Berry said that stabilization was crucial for districts.
“The reality is there is not a lot of additional dollars,” Berry said. “We are just hoping to maintain average daily membership.”
If a district drops below 2% of the previous year’s average daily membership, the state will use the previous year’s numbers to allocate funding, according to the governor’s executive order.
The 2020-21 proposed budget is $378.23 million, according to documents from the district. That budget figure is an increase from the previous year’s budget which was $355.35 million. The 2020-21 budget accounts for an increase to teacher salaries, bringing the average up from $59,575 to $62,315.
But the district has had to face expenses due to COVID-19 aside from the purchase of technology. The district has spent thousands of dollars on hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer stands, partitions, personal protective equipment and more in preparation for students to return to schools.
The district is also needing to train its teachers to teach in virtual formats via Chandler Online Academy and the district’s newest option—Elementary Connect via Chandler Online Academy, which is the online option available for elementary-aged students. It was unknown as of press time the full cost of utilizing these programs and curriculum for the 2020-21 school year, according to a district spokesperon.
“It is a balancing act because districts are sensitive to community relations—you don’t want to be the public institution where everyone else is enduring a lot of strife and you complaining feels tone deaf and inappropriate,” Kotterman said. “Districts have a tendency to buckle down and make it through. They have received a lot of investment in coronavirus relief funding, but they are having to switch to an entirely new instructional model in the middle of the semester and keep it going. It’s a very stressful time.”
Rep. Jennifer Pawlik (D-17), who represents Chandler in the State House of Representatives, said she thinks the funding stabilization provided through the governor’s executive orders will be adequate to address coronavirus-related expenses—but said she would always promote more school funding, even though it likely will not be possible this year.
“We know that schools are funded based on the number of students in attendance and we are suspecting that some students won’t come back and will move to a different district or charter.”
Returning to schools in person or online
The Chandler USD governing board voted June 24 to delay the start of the school year by two weeks and approved a plan to reopen schools with staff and students in kindergarten and up donning face coverings due to COVID-19.
Under the reopening schools plan, parents will be able to choose if they want their child to attend school online or in person.
“We share the frustration, the concern and the fear of the unknown,” Casteel said during the June 24 meeting. “Several things have become crystal clear ... There is a no-win in this situation. There is not a right answer or a single solution. We don’t have consensus from our community on the direction we should go. But the virus is not likely to disappear in the next few weeks, so it has become crystal clear that this challenge is not going to go away in the very near future.”
The governing board voted 3-2 to approve online and in-person instructional options for families. Board members Lindsay Love and Lara Bruner were the dissenting votes, both expressing concern about the ability to maintain health and safety with in-person classes.
“There’s not a right answer,” Board President Barb Mozdzen said. “We have to come to terms with the fact that we cannot make every single person happy with what we do.”
Casteel said during the meeting that it was important to note that the district’s online programs—Chandler Online Academy and Elementary Connect through Chandler Online Academy—are much different than the distance learning implemented in the spring.
“I think what has happened this spring is not what reflects the best of online learning; we had to make that transition so quickly to have students all working from home, that we characterize more as emergency remote learning than we do online learning,” said Jean Sharp, board member of the Digital Learning Collaborative and CAO of Apex Learning. “If you’re really doing an online learning program, a blended learning program, there generally is a lot of thought and care and planning that goes into how are you going to execute it, what are you going to do, what are the protocols you’re going to use. ... Nobody had time for that.”
Pawlik, a current professor at Northern Arizona University and former kindergarten teacher in Chandler USD, said she hopes to address further the digital divide and achievement gaps between students during this school year.
“I’m very concerned about the achievement gap widening,” Pawlik said. “Especially between the students who have access to technology and those who do not.”
Casteel said the coronavirus has created many uncertainties the district and families are grappling with ahead of the start of the new school year.
“We are in it with everyone else, but it really doesn’t make it much easier,” Casteel said. “We are all equally challenged and saddened by the day-to-day decisions we have to make that aren’t necessarily what our families want.”