Gilbert Public Schools board extends plan for hybrid learning model

Charles Santa Cruz
Charles Santa Cruz was re-elected Jan. 4 as governing board president for Gilbert Public Schools. (Screen shot from YouTube)

Charles Santa Cruz was re-elected Jan. 4 as governing board president for Gilbert Public Schools. (Screen shot from YouTube)

Just a day before schools returned from winter break but on the heels of record COVID-19 cases in the state, the Gilbert Public Schools governing board voted 3-2 Jan. 4 to extend hybrid learning possibly through January.

The decision came on a night when Superintendent Shane McCord announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. McCord attended the meeting remotely, but he had limited participation through the night.

The governing board’s plan—hammered out after rejecting a proposal to start in hybrid learning as planned then move to virtual learning after two weeks—calls for hybrid instruction to run until at least the earlier of Jan. 29 or when vaccines become available to teachers, expected to happen in late January or early February.

Though they were voted on separately, the plan will apply to elementary and secondary students. Lori Wood, Reed Carr and Jill Humphreys voted for the plan in both cases, while Sheila Uggetti and Charles Santa Cruz dissented.

A late twist, coming after the vote, modified the district’s hybrid plan to put Wednesdays back into play as an in-person instructional day.

Under hybrid instruction, students attend classes part-time and work remotely on other days. In the fall semester, students with the last names beginning with the letters A-L attended Mondays and Thursdays while M-Z students attended Tuesdays and Fridays. All students were online Wednesdays.

However, for start of spring semester, students will attend every other day according to the first letter of their last name, giving everyone an additional day of in-person instruction every two weeks.

The board had previously voted Dec. 15 to start spring semester in hybrid learning for just one week, then use the campus case metrics from that week to calibrate whether any campus needed to go into remote learning. Other schools would then open up to in-person instruction.

However, cases continue to rise in Arizona and Maricopa County, and state and county benchmarks show the East Valley to be among the county’s worst areas for community spread of the coronavirus. That had some district teachers saying they will have a “sickout” unless the board would move the district into starting the semester virtually.

At the board meeting, nearly 70 people addressed the board for more than three hours, some angrily or tearfully.

Most urged, as nearly all did on Dec. 15, to remain open for in-person instruction. They wanted the governing board keep with its Dec. 15 decision and not bow to teachers threatening a sickout, a move that was slammed by several people. The speakers frequently said school is the safest place for students and that virtual and hybrid education modes have been a hardship or even a failure.

However, unlike Dec. 15, speakers urging virtual learning to start the semester had a significant presence. They said the governing board had broken trust from August commitments to follow state and county health benchmarks to determine what mode of learning to use. They expressed little faith in the district’s own dashboard of cases on each campus, which was to be used to determine which GPS schools, if any, would need to go virtual.

Board Member Reed Carr, who proposed the Dec. 15 plan, also put forth the new plan as a compromise. Carr said his own preference was to start in person. Wood also expressed strong concerns about the educational experience for students from virtual and hybrid learning modes.

Humphreys expressed unhappiness with the plan, both from the student experience and the amount of work hybrid learning puts on teachers. But without another option, she said she would support the plan.

Uggetti was the strongest voice against it, saying that the benchmarks call for virtual learning now.

Santa Cruz was re-elected board president and Wood board clerk at the outset of the night as Uggetti said Santa Cruz’s leadership through a difficult time had been a rock for the board and that it would be a good idea to maintain the leadership as the district continues to navigate the pandemic’s challenges.

The board will continue to meet at 11:30 a.m. for policy meetings, 5 p.m. for executive sessions and 6 p.m. for business meetings for the 2021 calendar year.
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.