Payson schools made a backup plan inside its backup plan this week, moving uncertainly toward a post-pandemic world of online learning.
The school board authorized hiring two more teachers and buying additional online curriculum, despite the layers of uncertainty that persists.
The $94,000 investment might pay off — depending on how many kids sign up for distance learning classes next fall — when the mass vaccination campaign might — or might not — have tamed the pandemic and when children might — or might not — also finally have a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19.
On the other hand, the expanded online program could also turn into a money pit — if all the kids flock back to class.
Welcome to the fiscal casino of school budgeting, which involves hiring teachers and signing contracts months before the semester even starts.
So on Monday the school board allowed the administration to apply for state permission to offer an expansive distance learning curriculum for grades K-12.
The district’s betting that even if the pandemic ebbs, some students will still want to sign up for distance learning classes — now that they’ve had a taste of the online world.
Currently, some 301 students are in online-only classes or are classified as distance learners. That’s a huge increase in the handful of students taking such classes before the pandemic — which flung the entire district into long periods of distance-learning.
As it turns out, the state pays districts 5% less for online students — a formula that has cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year. A bill before the Arizona Legislature would eliminate that penalty, but the district’s lobbyists warn that it’s unlikely to pass.
So the district has guessed at how many students will enroll in distance learning programs next fall, with classes starting in August. That’s past the point when the nation will have vaccines for anyone who wants a shot — and might even be past the point when the federal government approves a safe and effective vaccine for kids.
Then again, it’s also possible that 30% of adults will refuse the vaccine and that the vaccine for kids won’t be ready. In that case, the virus will continue to circulate in the U.S. Worse yet, a new strain of the virus by then may have evolved in countries making little headway in vaccinating the population. Such a new strain might undercut the protection of the existing vaccines, especially if a large share of the U.S. population refuses the shot.
Nonetheless, the district’s working on the budget for next fall — and will offer teacher contracts long before we know the answers to most of the key questions.
And that brings us back to the Monday school board meeting and the decision to hire two teachers specializing in online instruction as well as buying curriculum so that K-8 students can join grades 9-12 in the brave, new world of distance learning.
It’ll all work out financially if 144 students enroll at least part time in distance learning classes. Not only does that give parents more options — it also makes it possible for students to take specialized classes not offered in person — including foreign language classes and specialized history, science and math classes.
If fewer than 144 part-time students enroll in the distance learning classes — the district will take a financial hit.
So far in the 2020-21 school year, the district has spent $163,000 on its distance-learning program, which just covers the cost of offering classes to kids who didn’t shift back and forth from in-person to online depending on the rise and fall of the virus.
Fortunately, things have settled down in the past several weeks. On Monday, Superintendent Linda Gibson said the district has just two new cases. The tracking report on the pandemic in the school shows that a total of 62 students are currently testing positive as well as 16 staff and faculty members. Some 360 students, faculty and staff are quarantined after close contact with someone who tested positive. At least 75% of the faculty are fully vaccinated — which means they don’t have to quarantine after a close contact.
Gibson noted that the application for state authorization to expand the distance learning program so far remains a contingency plan for next year — so that no matter what happens, the district can offer parents alternatives.
Gibson told the board, “If we don’t have distance learning and families still want to stay distanced, we’d have to move them to an online option. If we do not have K-6 approved, we have nowhere to put students who want to remain outside the brick and mortar setting. It’s a precautionary measure — depending on what legislation comes down regarding distance learning. If we even have half of these numbers we still break even, even if we fund two teachers out of it. Right now, what we would do is just have one teacher — at the high school level — and hold off to see what happens with distance learning before we move a second teacher into AOI.”
It’s possible the Legislature will repeal the financial penalty for students enrolled in online classes, reducing the risk for the district.
But don’t hold your breath.
Finance Director Kathie Manning noted, “This morning the (school boards association) lobbyist said it is highly unlikely the distance learning bill is going to pass.”