Dr. Mark Tregaskes superintendent of Safford for 23 years

Mark Tregaskes

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State lawmakers have laid the groundwork to extend a statewide school closure at least through mid April and possibly through the end of the school year.

This week lawmakers are expected to mostly agree on a package of bills that would require schools to find alternative ways to teach students, either online or through learning packets delivered online or picked up by parents.

Some educational provisions got caught in a budget stalemate as Democrats demanded the state do more to help people cope with the COVID-19 outbreak and widespread shutdowns. Caught in that debate was a partial restoration of $300 million in aid for computers, books and buses, cut during the recession and never fully restored. The Arizona Legislature may return to cope with the budget Monday.

Sen. Sylvia Allen (R-Snowflake) heads the Senate Education Committee and took the lead in working with districts to develop the guidelines to get through the unprecedented closure in mid-school year.

The bills suspend the requirement that schools offer at least 180 days of school a year, so schools won’t have to keep going this summer to make up days lost to the closures prompted by COVID-19. The bills would also allow schools to shift the school year into the summer.

However, that means finding other ways to deliver an education online or through home schooling.

None of the proposals offer help for parents suddenly needing to provide supervision at home for younger students.

“We can’t give up on our students during this crisis,” said Allen. “Our proposal gives schools the flexibility and certainty needed for students to keep learning and finish the school year strong.”

Interim Payson Unified School District Superintendent Mark Tregaskes said district administrators have been meeting to figure out how to offer online classes, instructional materials, lesson plans and even lectures to as many students as possible. The district will also prepare learning packets, with exercises, lesson plans and other materials parents can pick up if students don’t have computer and internet access.

Meanwhile, the district will also continue offering bagged breakfasts and lunches for students if parents can pick up the meals.

The district sent out letters to parents on Friday and will have learning packets ready for pickup to cover many classes on Wednesday, March 25, he said.

The letter urged families with internet access to get lesson plans through Google Classroom.

For students without internet access, each of the five school sites will have a place for parents to drive up and pick up learning packets for students from 9 a.m. to noon on Wednesday and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday. The packets will be available for each student who needs one at the Payson Elementary School front office, the Julia Randall Elementary front door under the covered entry, the Rim Country Middle School parent pickup lane in front of school, the Payson High School administrative parking lot and at Payson Center for Success at the middle door loading zone.

Many teachers already make use of the internet to provide assignments and curriculum materials. However, the district isn’t sure how many students lack access to the internet and a computer at home — complicating the effort to shift as much instruction as possible to an online model.

The state’s current closure order would allow students to go back to school on April 4. However, Gov. Doug Ducey is expected to extend the closure, with cases continuing to increase statewide.

Even if students go back to school in April, the legislation would not require schools to make up lost days, delay testing for state assessment and not penalize schools that didn’t get testing done when it comes time to issue school grades.

A long list of additional changes would kick in if the closures are extended.Provisions include:

• Require “general educational delivery in alternative formats.”

• Direct the state Department of Education to help schools develop alternative approaches including partnerships with other public or private schools, online platforms, email, or mail correspondence.

• Provide special education teachers and programs as much flexibility as possible.

• Allow schools to use their transportation fleet flexibly, for instance, using school vehicles and bus drivers to deliver learning packets to homes.

• Allow school employees to work from home or shift their assignments.

• Allow schools to use money for the current school year to shift instruction into the summer.

• Cancel statewide assessments for this school year, without affecting school letter grades.

• Waive requirements that third graders pass certain reading tests before they can move on to fourth grade.

• Develop specialized graduation requires for the current school year.

• Add to next year’s budget money for any students who take online classes this summer.

• Give districts added budget flexibility for the current year, especially in using federal state and federal money for existing programs.

Tregaskes said some teachers already make considerable use of the internet to communicate with students and distribute homework and other materials.

“I wouldn’t say school’s over — but school will be different,” said Tregaskes, acting as interim superintendent following the departure last month of Superintendent Stan Rentz in the middle of the school year. Tregaskes has spent 45 years in education, including 23 years as superintendent in Safford.

“It’ll be different for each school,” he said. “Where we can do online learning, we’ll continue that way. Where they do not have access, we’ll provide assignments for them. Certainly, we’ll be able to get them learning packets and we’ll have many learning opportunities.”

Families with access to computers and the internet will probably be able to log in and get curriculum, class lectures and assignments. Teachers are working on fully converting classes and lessons to an online approach.

Families without the internet or a computer may face greater challenges. The district will have to survey families to find out how many have access. Each teacher will then have to prepare learning packets for each student. Parents could then pick up the packets weekly — and presumably help their children work through the material at home.

The district will have to figure out how to get packets to students whose parents can’t pick them up. The changes approved by lawmakers give the districts more flexibility to use bus drivers and vehicles to do things like deliver materials to homes.

Once administrators get a count on the students without computer and internet access, they can seek help to get those students connected.

“There are some companies reaching out in different ways to address this crisis, to make things more accessible for families in many different ways.”

He noted, “I think as we go along we’ll get a real good understanding of how many people actually do have access. That will give us an idea of what we have to do. We may be having staff make contact with as many students as we can electronically, including phone conversations. It’ll be a good learning experience for us. Our teachers will be busy, along with the support staff. We’re going to have to work together to do this and do it well — but I’m confident we’ll be able to do it.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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