Arizona has given schools broad flexibility with reopening in August.

Now the Payson school board has to decide what to do with the freedom.

A recent survey that reached about half of the parents and two-thirds of the employees in the district documented a widespread desire to get back to schools that feel as nearly normal as possible.

However, many parents remain deeply worried about protecting their kids. They’re also worried about last semester’s reliance on online learning — which left a large share of the students out in the cold.

The survey suggestion of returning to all-day classes had the most parental support, but enough parents expressed concerns that the district could see a big drop in enrollment if the district doesn’t take enough precautions.

About 85% of the parents surveyed said they were moderately to very comfortable resuming full-time, in-person instruction. However, that left 15% expressing worrisome doubts, depending on the precautions the district put into effect.

About 68% supported normal, in-person learning with precautions. About 23% preferred a blend of internet and in-person learning to minimize classroom time. About 8% preferred continuing with a remote learning approach, with students rarely going on campus.

However, 13% said they don’t have internet at home and 40% said they don’t have a computer for the use of each child in the home.

Fortunately, the state and federal governments will cover most of the extra costs of reopening, including increased reliance on online learning. The state has also given the schools authority to adopt an array of schedules that minimize how many kids mix on campus every day.

The discussion and the surveys revealed a primary commitment to keeping kids safe, but also a deep yearning to get back to class and the crucial relationships between teachers and students. The district’s also committed to resuming extracurricular activities, especially sports, after-school clubs, drama and other programs.

“We’re going to do everything in our power to offer extracurricular programs,” said incoming Superintendent Linda Gibson.

She noted that the state’s order requires that any blend of in-person and internet classes include “free onsite learning for students who need a place to go during the day must be during the same hours offered during the prior school year before the COVID-19 closure took place.”

She said the administrative team will consider all the scheduling options on July 7 and 8 and put out the word to the community on the details the week of July 13, with classes starting on Aug. 3.

“The executive order is good news in the sense that it provides more direct support from the state with expectations. We understand that there is a desire to know now, but with moving parts such as COVID-19 positive case numbers in our county, we want to err on the side of caution as to not present and have to change a week later.”

She said late last week that the governor’s order has already changed the options open to the district. “This is a prime example of one day we are at one point and the next day guidelines cause that point to move in a different direction.”

The board approved the preliminary steps.

“We don’t want to come out with a plan and have to change it,” said board member Barbara Underwood. “But we can’t wait too long — because people have to make a decision.”

“We’re trying to get the information out, regardless of which plan we choose,” said Gibson.

The district’s already moving to open some summer extracurricular programs in July, leading up to the reopening of school on Aug. 3. The summer programs — mostly sports — will start with outdoor activities and then take advantage of indoor spaces like the gym.

Studies have found that younger people can become infected with COVID-19 just as easily as any other age group — but they’re far less likely to suffer serious complications than older people. Many never show symptoms of an infection. However, a very small number of infected children later develop a mysterious inflammatory disease likely related to an immune system response to the original infection. The biggest concern remains the possibility that kids will spread the infection to one another in school and then infect older adults at home. People over 65 account for 75% of the deaths in Arizona.

“This was a great job on getting that survey (of parents and staff) out there,” said board member Shelia DeSchaaf. “A lot of people responded. It’s very good to get that input on how we move forward.”

Some changes are already settled, according to last week’s school board meeting. So no matter what schedule the district adopts, expect changes to include:

• Masks and temperature checks on the school bus.

• Frequent temperature checks for teachers and workers.

• Bare bones classrooms so kids can sit as far apart as possible.

• Limits on moments when kids gather — like recess.

• Lots of hand sanitizers and frequent disinfection of classrooms.

• Chromebooks for every student, with more training for teachers and more integration of online tools into everyday instruction.

• Elimination of awards for attendance, since the schools want parents to keep their kids home if they feel even a little “off” in the morning.

But some big questions remain outstanding that mostly focus on whether to stagger student in-class schedules and how heavily to rely on online learning approaches.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey last week announced a bundle of changes to give school districts as much flexibility as possible, depending on local conditions and parent response. The changes were financed with some $300 million out of the $800 million the state has received for education under the CARES Act.

First, the state said it won’t cut per-student funding by more than 2% — even if the districts suffer a much steeper drop in enrollment. The governor’s package earmarked $200 million in federal funding to underwrite that guarantee. Some state and national studies have projected worried parents might keep as much as 20% of students home — at least initially.

Second, the state has relaxed requirements as to the time the students spend in the classroom. This means the districts would not suffer a financial hit if it adopted a blended model, with a lot of the instruction happening online.

The state package also includes:

  • $40 million to expand broadband in rural communities.
  • $20 million to bring extra support to “high-need” schools.
  • $1 million in “micro-grants” for innovative programs.
  • $25 million in extra help for non-Title I schools, distance learning expansion, and special education services lost during the school closures.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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