One way or another — Payson students will start learning stuff again on Aug. 3.
The district has a plan that includes distance learning, Chromebooks for everyone, teachers scrambling to adapt lesson plans, masks and lots and lots of hand sanitizer.
Unfortunately, the state and federal government will likely once again upend those plans as the chaos spreads as fast as COVID-19.
Moreover, the COVID-19 death of a beloved teacher running summer school classes in Hayden-Winkelman in southern Gila County has made national headlines — and rattled teachers planning their return to class.
“The biggest thing is we have to have faith and trust,” said Superintendent Linda Gibson. “We have to trust that we truly are thinking of the health and safety of everybody. You see a snippet of information here and there it might not feel that way, but we really are trying to take into consideration every piece of the puzzle. We know we’ve had a teacher death within our county — the tragic loss of a teacher working with two other teachers. There weren’t any kids in play. It was devastating for that community. We certainly don’t want to put anyone in jeopardy in any way whatsoever.”
Research suggests that younger children face a relatively low risk from the virus, but teachers must cope with a much higher risk of serious illness.
But here’s how things stand as of Monday’s hour-long school board briefing in the long shadow of the pandemic, in one of the worst-hit states in the country. In recent weeks Gila County has gone from a handful of cases to nearly 500, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, with a cluster of deaths in a local nursing home.
For starters, the district will check out Chromebooks to every student in grades 2-12 on July 27 through July 30. Parents can show up at the district warehouse near the football field from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. and from 4 to 7:30 p.m. to get a Chromebook, already loaded with all the necessary software and ready to connect safely to the district’s system.
Parents can also let the district know if they need help getting internet service, so their student can use the Chromebook to take classes online. The district will work with internet providers and perhaps even help pay the bill.
“PUSD will offer year-long distance learning as an option for all grades if desired. Opening in person is an option for all families — not mandatory to receive education in PUSD,” said Gibson.
Those online classes will start on Aug. 3 — just like the regular school year. But here’s where the uncertainties begin to pile up.
Gov. Doug Ducey has ordered schools to resume in-person classes on Aug. 17. Schools have to remain open the same hours as usual to get state funding. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off federal funding for school districts that don’t offer in-person classes.
Gibson told the school board on Monday that many educators suspect Gov. Ducey will again postpone the first day of in-person classes — perhaps pushing the start into September or even October.
So between Aug. 3 and Aug. 17, Payson students will take their classes online — just like they did when the state ordered schools closed after spring break last semester. This time, the district’s had more time to prepare and teachers have had more time to adapt their curriculum. Moreover, the district has earmarked some $400,000 in federal CARES Act money to ensure each student will get a Chromebook. Last semester, 20% or 30% of students nationally found they had no computer or connection to the internet and so fell behind when schools suddenly went online.
However, difficult uncertainties remain, said Gibson.
Even after in-person classes start, parents can opt to continue distance-learning-only classes. But no one has any idea how many parents might go for that option. Should the district plan for the return of half the students to in-person classes — or more like 90%? That makes a huge difference when it comes to scheduling, the ability to maintain social distancing and the workload on teachers.
If most kids come to class, then life would look pretty normal for the teachers — not counting wearing masks, repeatedly sanitizing classrooms, taking every student’s temperature every morning and figuring out what to do about extracurricular activities like sports and music. But if a third of the students opt for distance learning, teachers could face a huge extra workload. They would have to teach their classes normally and then somehow also find time to interact with the online students to keep them on track.
If lots of students opt for distance learning, then some teachers could be assigned to teach online and others in person. That sounds good in theory, but the district also has shortages of teachers in many key fields — like math and science.
The district will undertake a second survey of parents to get a clue as to how many parents will prefer online-only education, “but at the moment, we just don’t know,” said Gibson.
Meanwhile, the district’s also working on a plan for when in-person classes do resume — which might be Aug. 17, but which might come weeks or months later. Already, several giant school districts in California have decided to offer online-only classes this semester.
A big majority of Payson parents expressed a preference for in-person classes with added precautions in an initial district survey. But Arizona has faced a huge spike in infections in recent weeks — with a nine-fold increase in documented cases since the expiration of the governor’s original stay-at-home order in mid May. Payson was once a COVID-19 backwater, but cases here have exploded. Because the average age in Payson is 58, the community faces a much higher risk of serious side effects than most towns in the state.
Research suggests younger children are about half as likely to become infected when exposed to the virus as older people. Moreover, only about 20% of children who do get infected develop symptoms — compared to about 60% of adults. So the virus appears to pose much less risk to elementary school students, who generally remain with the same group of 25 or 30 students all day long. High school students face a higher risk, both because they’re more prone to infection and because they usually change classes five or six times a day. This means each high school student mixes with roughly 180 other students every day — multiplying the risk of infection.
Gibson said the district considered overhauling the master schedule, to keep groups of high school and middle school students together for a succession of classes, dramatically decreasing their contacts in the course of the school day. However, such a dramatic scheduling overhaul would require a host of changes with time short now before the state-mandated reopening.
“If we have an abundance of our families who will be choosing distance learning even when we have the option to open in person, the master schedules may be affected based on the number of students who arrive in person.”
The district’s also still working on the plan for elective classes and extracurricular activities. Fall sports have already postponed their preseason practice. It’s unclear whether the state will have any of the normal sports schedule, including football. The district may also have trouble fully supporting after-school clubs and activities and even in-school classes like choir and music. Studies suggest singing in a group may be an especially effective way to spread the virus from person to person.
The easier change involves widespread use of masks, which studies show can dramatically reduce the risk the virus will spread on the breath of people together for more than 10 minutes at a time in an enclosed space with lots of other people — the perfect description of a school classroom in a state with among the largest class sizes in the country.
Gibson said the district will require students and faculty to wear masks in any setting where people can’t maintain the six feet of “social distance” recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control. Currently, Payson has imposed a mask order for the whole community, although the order is widely ignored. Gibson on Monday made it clear that once schools reopen, schools have a mask requirement even if the town revokes its order.
“There’s a consensus by the administrative team that we need to wear masks, regardless of whether the town’s order is lifted,” said Gibson. “If we’re in the classroom and we can’t socially distance, we need to be wearing masks.”
The district’s still figuring out what to do if a child or faculty member won’t wear a mask — especially if they have a medical condition that makes it difficult to mask up.
“We haven’t ironed that out yet,” said Gibson.
The reopening plan also includes a host of changes like requiring children to wear a mask on the school bus, taking temperatures and checking for other symptoms when they arrive at school, frequent use of hand sanitizers, frequent, rigorous cleaning of classrooms and common spaces and staggering recess, class periods, lunch hours and dismissal times to avoid having crowds of students collect in a small space.
“The plan still has a lot of moving parts,” said Gibson. “We want kids back as much as possible, but not at the expense of anyone’s health. We know we have some teachers who have health concerns and we will address them on an individual basis — just like students. We’ll meet with individuals and discuss what’s feasible for them.”
“So with the masks,” asked board member Barbara Underwood, “the kids have to provide their own — but we’ll have backup?”
“Right now, that’s where we’re at,” said Gibson.
Board member Joanne Conlin asked, “so if a child comes in and has a dry cough or a fever — obviously those parents have to come and pick that child up. Would we have an isolation area for them?”
“Yes, we would immediately mask that child and have an isolation area for them to wait for their parents. We want to work with parents on assessing their children’s health before sending them to school for any signs of illness with screening questions being provided to parents to help protect the health and safety of all staff and students.”
Gibson noted that the state and federal governments are in the process of coming up with new recommendations on how schools can minimize risks in reopening. One issue centers on the CDC’s recommendation that schools arrange classrooms to maintain six feet of space between desks “if feasible.” The current classroom configuration makes that virtually impossible, unless half the students opt for online learning — which would pose a whole different set of problems.
“If new orders come down and say you absolutely have to social distance, then we have to reconfigure everything. It is not feasible. That’s the key word, what’s ‘feasible.’ What can we do with the environment we have? We don’t know until we begin how it’s all going to flow out.”
She acknowledged that the temperature checks, sanitizing, staggered releases and other protective measures will take time. “That’s all time away from education. However, this is a huge learning experience for all of us.”