Scott Peiffer said his youngest son, a fourth-grader at Basha Elementary School, was a little nervous about going back to his brick-and-mortar school when campuses first opened to elementary school students in September.

He had been an average student before going virtual last spring due to the coronavirus, Peiffer said, but he had been getting A’s and B’s in school while learning from home during the pandemic.

“I am blessed because his teacher is just phenomenal; she’s made it a fantastic online learning experience,” he said. “For me, based on everything I have seen in our school district, I have faith in our school district and the people who run it. I know that they would make the right decisions for kids and teachers and the community.”

The Peiffers are one of thousands of families that sent their students back to classes in September in a staggered start—with the youngest students starting first and the older kids coming in the next week—after starting the school year online as the number of coronavirus cases remained too high to open schools.

Families, teachers, students and district leaders have adjusted to this unprecedented school year. Teachers are learning new ways to connect with their students and adapt to the constraints of social distancing. Parents are grappling with the decision to send their children back or keep them online or are worrying about what gaps in their education might have occurred in the last few months.

Meanwhile, district officials are bracing for decreased student enrollment as more parents opted this year to remove their students from the district and send them to charter schools, private schools or decided to homeschool their kids. The district has seen annual increases in enrollment for several years, so much so that it built a new elementary school and is in the process of building a new high school.

“We are down about 2,200 enrolled students,” Chandler USD Chief Financial Officer Lana Berry said. “We had 46,960 students approximately last year, and we’re at about 44,710 kids now. So we are definitely seeing that decrease. I’m hoping that once everybody’s back in school that things will change. We did not predict, prior to [COVID-19], that we would decrease. We thought we would grow about 300 kids per year. Then when COVID happened, we thought, ‘OK, we’ll probably grow,’ but it will be a little bit less. But we never would have predicted that we would have lost the number of students that we have right now.”

Enrollment concerns

For a school district, enrollment is the key to securing funding from the state. Annual funding is based on average daily membership—known as ADM—and for the last several years CUSD has seen an increase in enrollment each year.

Berry said the majority of students leaving the district are in the elementary school grades—from preschool to eighth grade.

“Our high schools are still growing; that’s where we know we have growth,” Berry said. “To be honest, there’s not a lot of competition in that area. We have a few charter schools that serve ninth through 12th grade and private schools, but our comprehensive high schools are definitely what parents seek for their kids. And they come back, even if they are at a different type of entity for K-8. So we see a huge jump between eighth and ninth grades of about 500 students.”

Berry said she believes the timing of reopening the brick-and-mortar schools may be the culprit for the decline in enrollment. As charter schools, private schools and nearby districts began opening, students began leaving.

Christine Newburn considered pulling her kids from the district after struggles with online learning. The Chandler mom has three students in CUSD schools—two seniors and one incoming freshman.

“I am completely in favor of the kids being back in school,” Newburn said. “I think that we have lost six months of learning for the kids, period. Online is not working at all. My biggest concern for my children, and I think other parents feel the same, is that [months of virtual learning] is not going to be an accurate representation of what our kids have grasped primarily because they can cheat.”

Newburn said because her senior child in sports would lose eligibility and her other senior child requires special education services, it would be too difficult for them to transfer to a charter or private school.

“My freshman said that he didn’t want to move schools,” Newburn said. “I tried to talk my kids into going to charter schools because a lot of people have left the district, but they ultimately didn’t want to.”

Berry said she is grateful for the state’s enrollment stability grant, which allows districts to be funded at their previous years’ enrollment. Even still, Berry said the district is bracing for an $8 million loss it cannot regain for the next fiscal year due to enrollment.

“We know when our budget decreases, we can handle that,” Berry said. “We can utilize funds that we had and prepared for to get us through this hard time. But next year is a bigger problem for us. You’re down over 2,000 kids; your [maintenance and operations] budget alone is going to go down over $11 million. And that’s a big impact because now, we’re talking about positions.”

Berry said, while there are no certainties at this point, the district is anticipating a decrease in the number of jobs for the future.

“That’s hard because we’ve been growing,” Berry said. “We haven’t had that. We haven’t been declining as a school district. But that’s definitely something we’re going to be preparing for for next year.”

New school year

Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association, said teachers across the district have been working for months to make the best of a difficult situation.

“All of these educators are incredible,” Nash said. “The amazing ingenuity and creativity they have and the hours they spent outside of contract time getting rooms ready, cleaning, spreading out classrooms—it’s a lot. Ninety-nine point nine percent of educators are putting in 12- to 14-hour days, six or seven days a week and have been doing so since before school even opened to online instruction. It’s not all fun and happy times at home doing this. People are learning this technology on the fly and building the plane while we’re flying it. It’s truly what is happening.”

Nash said a majority of teachers were not in favor of opening schools prior to Oct. 13—when secondary students went back. But when the CUSD board voted for a staggered start for elementary schools, teachers rolled up their sleeves and got to work. She said the reopening of elementary schools has largely gone off without a hitch.

Heidi Gass, the technology teacher at Frye Elementary School and the grandparent of a CUSD student, said she was glad to be back with her students.

“I was always happy to have the kids back,” Gass said. “I’m not afraid of the virus. I want to be safe, and I feel like I could be safe and take care of myself and the kids and be safe at school. I work at a Title I school; our kids need to be at school.”

Gass said kids have been cooperative with social distancing and wearing their masks from day one back on campus.

“It’s been a dream,” she said. “The kids have stepped up; they are wearing their mask; they do what they are supposed to do. It has really been awesome.”

Nash said that across the board there are concerns about first quarter grades after students faced a steep learning curve getting used to distance learning. She noted that prior to last spring, an online option at CUSD for elementary school students did not even exist.

“There just has to be a level of understanding and grace,” Nash said. “At the secondary level, we are accommodating for the fact that there will be kiddos who are struggling. Teachers aren’t going to set them up for failure and recoup that grade for the first quarter.”

Peiffer, who has a junior high school student, said he was still a little apprehensive about sending him back to in-person school with more students and more mobility between classes.

“At the end of the day, I think too many people are focused on themselves and everything going on,” Peiffer said. “I put my faith in the Chandler school district because I knew they would make the right decisions under all the tremendous pressure, and I have been pretty satisfied. If something were to happen and things change, they are the first to err on the side of student and staff safety.”