Higley USD gives families options for in-person or online return to school

Higley USD
The Higley USD governing board heard plans for a return to school that would allow families to return in person or online only. (Community Impact staff)

The Higley USD governing board heard plans for a return to school that would allow families to return in person or online only. (Community Impact staff)

Higley USD plans to restart schools July 27 as originally scheduled with families having the option of full-time in-person learning or full-time remote education, district officials said.

Families will have the ability to change modes, too, as they become more or less comfortable with returning to campuses full time.

Those options were among the myriad details presented to the district’s governing board in a work-study session at its marathon July 24 meeting.

But officials cautioned the plans being presented to the board are still subject to change as events warrant.

“What you see and what you hear tonight is probably going to change,” Superintendent Mike Thomason said. “We have done the very best we can to put together an incredible program for opening school next year, but with that being said, from last week to this week, things have changed. From the end of May till now, things have changed three or four times. I do want to tell you, the precautionary tale for our teachers, our students, our staff, we are doing the very best we can in an ever-changing world of COVID.”


Options for hybrid models of education, where students would do a mix of in-person and remote education with only half the students on campus at any time, were discussed but largely shelved. Thomason noted that the state has no funding mechanism for such models.

Return-to-school models

K-12 Educational Services Assistant Superintendent Dawn Foley, who spearheaded the presentation to the board, said it is most critical for families to let the district know what they want to do for their children’s educations, in person or remote, so that the district can make the necessary arrangements to meet their needs.

A linchpin to the plans, whether education is in person or online, elementary or secondary, is the use of Canvas, a popular Web-based learning management system.

Williams Field High School Principal Steve Tannenbaum said the district likes the consistency of Canvas, which offers a home page when students login that gives required district links and individual teacher and professional learning community resources; weekly modules; assignment links; and a calendar.

Regardless of whether the student is in person or online, the district anticipates a five-day school week with instruction focused on core content. Social emotional support will be provided, and individual student needs for areas like special education or gifted education will be accommodated, officials said.

Accountable grading practices will be employed both in person and online, unlike the grading from fourth quarter of the 2019-20 school year when remote learning was implemented suddenly with the onset of COVID-19.

“It will not be the online of fourth quarter of last year,” Foley said.

Elementary school in person

For elementary school students returning in person will find new processes for arrivals and dismissals. When students arrive at school, they likely will report immediately to their homerooms. Dismissals could be different by campus but would aim to lessen crowding that happens after school.

Students will find enhanced safety and cleaning protocols in place, and in-classroom distancing will occur as much as possible.

Distancing processes also will be in place for meals, recess and transitioning between classes.

“Specials,” such as physical education and music classes, will be offered with modifications for safety as well as modified extracurricular activities.

Devices, supplies and curriculum material will be supplied for each student as much as possible.

Elementary school online

While the school week will be five days, Wednesdays may be modified to allow possibilities such as teacher office hours.

Specials will be offered through Canvas, which will be the primary platform for communication, lessons, assignments and weekly updates.

Students will be provided live teacher sessions with opportunities for student engagement and interaction.

Small group live sessions also will be provided to support additional individual needs.

Secondary education

In-person instruction at the middle and high schools will have an increased focus on building relationships, with engaging student-centered lessons and more peer interaction, though at safe distances.

Teachers will integrate technology in the classroom on a regular basis.

For virtual instruction, students will submit assignments to demonstrate mastery. Students also must log on to Canvas to record attendance.

There will be consistent days for instruction and assignment due dates.

Synchronous meetings and activities will be recorded for absentees.

Attendance

As attendance is a key to state funding, it will be recorded using a ParentVUE attendance app.

However, the district will not send home auto-generated attendance letters this year as district officials said those would give a mixed message that would contradict Centers for Disease Control

guidelines on when to keep students home.

The auto-dialer to check on unverified attendances will continue as required by statute.

Facilities

The district will have increased cleaning with an emphasis on disinfecting and sanitation using enhanced procedures. Staff will received training and professional development on cleaning.

Personal protective equipment, thermometers and cleaning supplies will be stockpiled at the district warehouse.

Hand sanitizer stations will be installed at all sites, including the district office.

Some specialized disinfecting equipment has been purchased, and the district will have a “ghostbuster” team that will come into clean when areas have been exposed to COVID-19.

Transportation

Because social distancing is not possible on buses, masks will be required for students, drivers and aides.

All buses will have hand sanitizer available that drivers will be able to dispense as needed. Buses will have seats and handrails disinfected after each trip.

A few bus windows will be opened slightly to allow increased fresh airflow into the bus. This will happen with air conditioning.

Special education drivers and aides will be provided with face shields to use when they are in proximity of a student.

Students will have assigned seats on buses with families living in the same house able to sit together.

Students will continue to scan their bus pass or ID on and off the buses.

When the buses are not in use, they will be parked with windows and doors closed so that temperatures can reach 133 degrees or more as an additional disinfectant against coronavirus.

Athletics/activities

The district will follow protocols from the Arizona Interscholastic Association and CDC guidelines.

Check-in and monitoring procedures will be in place for student health. Equipment and facilities will be sterilized after events, and personal equipment will not be allowed to be shared.

The district is using tiered opening which is currently at stage 3, allowing for group training of no more than 50 students per group.

The district is offering limited rental opportunities, and renters have to follow specific CDC guidelines with health screenings for employees and renters.

Health screenings

The district is placing upon families responsibilities to screen family members for illness and keeping children who are home and out of school.

The expectation for family screenings is a daily check for symptoms or close contact with anyone showing symptoms or having tested positive.

The district also has exclusion guidelines to help families determine when students who are kept or sent home can safely return to school.

The district also has developed a flow chart to follow in response to a report of a positive case.

Anyone who has had primary contact with someone who has a confirmed COVID-19 case is asked to self-isolate for a minimum of five days and contact human resources.

For those who have had secondary contact—for example, a household member has had contact with someone with COVID-19 at work, can return to work with good hygiene practices.

Thomason said if mask mandates from the the town of Gilbert and Maricopa County expire, the district will highly encourage students and staff to wear masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Food service

The district will continue to follow health codes and recommended practices on food safety, storage and preparation, and Chartwells, the district food service provider, will require its employees to stay home and notify a supervisor if they are sick.

Food purchases will require use of an ID card. The district is eliminating all self-serve unwrapped items and all self-serve items at elementary schools.

Middle and high schools will have additional points of service.

Human resources

Federal programs have added additional paid leave for employees who become ill and miss time with COVID-19, Human Resources Executive Director Mum Martens said. That includes, for the first time, paid use of the Family Medical Leave Act.

Workers who gets COVID-19 from exposure on site may be eligible for workers compensation if the district’s vendor rules that state guidelines apply. However, it may be difficult to prove exposure happened at the workplace, she said.

Martens said the district will work with employees on their options the best way they can, though options can become limited.

Next steps

Foley said the next steps will be communication with the community on district plans, including sharing an FAQ. The district expects initial communication to go out by week’s end. The district also will survey parents for their preferred enrollment options.

Thereafter, the district will finalize plans and preparations and then monitor and adjust plans accordingly.

Several board members expressed thanks to the staff members who worked on the plans.

“We have to ask our community and parents,” board Vice President Kristina Reese said. “We absolutely need them to work with us.”
By Tom Blodgett
Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent 30 years in journalism in Arizona and is the editor of the Gilbert edition of Community Impact Newspaper. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he now serves as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.


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