School districts wrestle with reopening details

Gilbert's school districts are offering different options for learning this fall. (Sources: Gilbert Public Schools. Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)
Gilbert's school districts are offering different options for learning this fall. (Sources: Gilbert Public Schools. Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)

Gilbert's school districts are offering different options for learning this fall. (Sources: Gilbert Public Schools. Higley USD, Chandler USD/Community Impact Newspaper)

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The three school districts that serve Gilbert announced plans for return to school in the fall, but all three admitted those plans are subject to change as the COVID-19 environment changes.

“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,” Higley USD Superintendent Mike Thomason said. “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.”

All three districts plan to start instruction remotely only until in-person instruction is allowed.

Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order June 29 that pushed in-person school start dates back to Aug. 17, and that could be pushed even further back if the state’s COVID-19 case numbers continue to remain so high. The Arizona Department of Health Services is working with the Arizona Department of Education on health metrics to help guide districts' decisions on when to reopen in person.

Higley USD planned to start July 27 as originally scheduled, while Chandler USD and Gilbert Public Schools plan to start remotely Aug. 5. For CUSD, that represents pushing back its original start date from July 22.

The governing boards for GPS and CUSD approved plans that call for families to choose among three learning options: in-person with enhanced safety protocols, online only and a hybrid model that includes both. GPS calls its hybrid model a flex option and CUSD concurrent enrollment.

The hybrid options, like in-person, would not be able to start before Aug. 17 because they involve some in-person instruction. The online instruction will be run through the districts’ virtual academies.

HUSD approved a choice of in-person or online only. The district did not previously have a virtual academy but applied June 30 to the state to be able to do so.

All three districts will use Florida Virtual Online curriculum for their online instruction.

In each case, the districts will have families choose their preferred models for their children’s instruction and then work to match staffing with demand.

GPS wrestles with start date

While the GPS governing board accepted the district’s plan, as developed by a task force representing all stakeholders, without reservation, it wrestled more with when to start.

Superintendent Shane McCord said that while it was not ideal, he thought it best that the district start school as originally scheduled Aug. 5, even if it means instruction can only done remotely until in-person instruction is allowed to start.

Barbara Newman, GPS executive director for teaching and learning, said the three-option plan offers choices for families to decide what is best for students academically and best for their health and wellness.

The plan also provides support to students who experience a disruption in learning due to sickness or future closures and is flexible so as to be modified if circumstances change.

The district will offer online learning, either exclusively or as part of the flex option, through its Gilbert Global Academy, which has offered online learning in past years and will be expanded to handle students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Parents were asked to choose from among the models in July.

Teachers and staff received training, and staff will be reassigned to meet family demand among the options.

The governing board resolved July 28 to reopen for in-person instruction as soon as the state's health metrics permit, but will re-evaluate the decision at a Sept. 22 board meeting if those metrics still have not been hit.

Higley USD stays out of hybrid learning

Higley USD’s plan, as presented to the governing board, is for families to choose between full-time in-person or online learning. Families will have the ability to change modes, too, as they become more or less comfortable with returning to campuses full-time.

A decision on when to resume in-person instruction could come as soon as a special board meeting at 9 a.m. Aug. 8, after the state's health benchmarks have been released.

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 shelved.

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.

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

To accommodate online learning, the board approved on July 1 the purchase of Florida Virtual Online curriculum that online students will use in the coming school year.

The Florida curriculum is used in several surrounding districts’ virtual academies, including GPS and CUSD.

Educational Services Associate Superintendent Dawn Foley touted the curriculum for the quality and variety of offerings, though not all electives are available through it. She also said it works well with Canvas.

HUSD has not had a virtual academy, but Foley said the district has learned the necessity of it through the pandemic and put in an application for an Arizona Online Instruction program June 30.

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.

Chandler USD pushes back return

The CUSD governing board voted June 24 to delay the start of the school year by two weeks and approved a plan to reopen schools with students in kindergarten and above and staff wearing face coverings due to COVID-19.

The school year will begin for students Aug. 5, moved from July 22. The two weeks will allow the district to further prepare for the start of a school year that will look much different than previous years due to the coronavirus, Superintendent Camille Casteel said.

“The Aug. 5 date gave us enough breathing room so we could do things well,” Casteel said. “This is a difficult decision. We are doing it for a practical reason—to give us more time to prepare even more than we have.”

Board President Barb Mozdzen said the time also allows the district time to train teachers and staff in online models that will be available to students.

Breaks in the fall and spring that had been historically two weeks will now be one week with the adjusted calendar.

Online school, either full-time or as part of the district’s concurrent enrollment option, will be conducted through Chandler Online Academy.

“We share the frustration, the concern and the fear of the unknown,” Casteel said. “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.”

Additional reporting by Alexa D’Angelo
By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.