The Payson Unified School District on Monday unveiled a school reopening plan that includes online opening on Aug. 3, followed by in-person classes on Aug. 17.
The district will issue all students in grades 2-12 a Chromebook prior to the start of class and will have Chromebooks as needed for students in kindergarten and first grade, according to the tentative plan presented to the school board on Monday night.
The district’s also asking parents that have trouble providing internet connections at home for their children to contact the district for possible financial assistance.
The Payson plan comes against the backdrop of controversy nationwide about the federal government’s effort to ensure schools nationwide resume in-person classes.
See Friday’s Roundup for details on the school board’s reaction to the proposed reopening plan.
The White House and the U.S. Department of Education last week threatened to cut off funding to public schools that don’t reopen for in-person classes, supercharging one of the most fraught and painful choices posed by the pandemic.
“We are going to put pressure on governors and everybody else to open the schools. It’s very important for our country,” said President Donald Trump, according to national news media accounts. “It’s very important for the well-being of the students and the parents. So we’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on: Open your schools in the fall.”
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman responded in a press release saying that in the face of the state’s steepest rise in documented COVID-19 cases, schools can’t yet guarantee the safety of students and faculty with a return to full-time, in-person classes.
“For Arizona to reopen school facilities for in-person learning, we must first get COVID-19 under control. In the last two weeks, our confirmed cases doubled from 50,000 to 100,000. Arizona has the highest infection rate per capita than any other state.”
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has postponed school openings until Aug. 17, but hasn’t ordered schools to resume full time, in-person classes. The initial state guidelines would allow a mix of in-person and online classes.
Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control reacted to a blast from President Trump by promising to issue new, less restrictive guidelines for school reopening. The initial guidelines suggested maintaining a six-foot distance between students’ desks “if feasible.”
The increasing politicization of the school opening issues has left local school officials scrambling to issue their own guidelines and settle on a schedule. Most are planning a resumption of in-person classes sometime after Aug. 17, with some mix of required masks, limits in group settings like playgrounds and cafeterias, more cleaning and more use of online lectures, tests and projects.
PUSD Superintendent Linda Gibson said, “Only time will tell what and if any new directions will come.”
As of this writing, the school board has not approved the reopening plan. The tentative plan attached to the agenda indicated teachers will report to school and provide online instruction prior to the expiration of the governor’s order postponing in-person classes until after Aug. 17.
The tentative plan for when classes resume includes masks on buses, early release on Fridays, the same bus routes as last year, student and staff temperature and symptom checks daily and changes in how many students mix during breakfast and lunch periods. The plan will provide “social distancing as best feasible.”
The plan said “only if the mayor’s call to the public to wear masks when social distancing is not feasible will PUSD require masks to be worn during school hours.”
This would appear to leave the call on whether to wear masks up to Payson Mayor Tom Morrissey.
The CDC had recommended schools set up classrooms to keep students six feet apart in well-ventilated classrooms. However, most schools have far too many students in each classroom to follow those restrictions without staggering school schedules. Arizona has among the largest class sizes in the country, compounding the problem.
School districts are worried many parents will keep students at home, for fear of infection. However, the state had altered funding formulas temporarily so that districts won’t lose more than 5% of their per-student funding, even if enrollment drops more steeply.
The state will use some $227 million in federal CARES Act funding to offset losses for districts due to enrollment declines.
Studies suggest that children face a lower risk of infection and serious symptoms when hit by COVID-19. An international study of infection rates among close contacts found that those under 20 are roughly half as likely to get infected as those older than 20. Moreover, almost 80% of those under 20 who got infected did not develop symptoms compared to 31% of those over 70 years of age.
The study published in Nature Medicine concluded this would likely make school closures less effective in slowing the spread of COVID-19 than in other respiratory viruses, including the flu which hits children especially hard. This could also mean countries with lots of children could experience lower overall death rates from the pandemic.
Another just-completed study published in Nature found that among 27 million people infected in England, people older than 80 were 20 times more likely to die than people in their 50s and hundreds of times more likely to die than people younger than 40. Other risk factors included obesity, diabetes, severe asthma and compromised immunity. The analysis of more than 10,000 deaths also found that blacks and South Asian people were at roughly twice the risk of dying as whites, when controlling for several other factors.
In Arizona, those older than 55 account for 24% of the 108,000 infections, but 87% of the 1,963 deaths as of Thursday.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended resumption of in-person classes with safety measures, given the relatively low risk of serious symptoms among children.
However, the potential impact on teachers may pose a harder problem to solve. Districts worry many older teachers will sit out the year or retire rather than risk an infection, given the steep rise in Arizona cases. About a third of Americans teachers are older than 50.
Payson schools have an unusually high experience index among the teaching staff, which suggests a higher average age.
Moreover, the overall average age in Payson is 58, making it effectively a high-risk community. If in-person classes spread the virus among children, they can easily spread it to older, high-risk adults in the community. Payson also has an unusually high number of grandparents raising their school-age grandchildren.
Hoffman’s release said, “While young students may be at lower risk for infection, the educators who make learning possible — including instructional aides, librarians, bus drivers, nutrition workers and more — are at risk, as are students with medical conditions. Those valued members of our schools need more assurances that schools and communities have the resources they need to stop the virus from spreading widely through their communities. Given Arizona’s rising case numbers and the fact that Arizona remains open, I cannot provide those assurances for the adults and students who are medically vulnerable in our school communities at this time. Stay home, maintain physical distancing, wash your hands and wear a mask when you are in public. It is only with statewide action and personal responsibility that we will find a pathway forward for our students and educators to return to the classroom.”
The National Parent Teacher Association and the American Federation of Teachers issued a joint statement saying schools cannot open without a comprehensive safety plan without “putting students, their families and educators in danger.”The group estimated schools need $200 billion nationwide to implement the needed safety measures, including social distancing in classrooms, masks, cleaning supplies, computers, internet connections and other tools needed to keep students from mingling in large groups for extended periods, increasing the odds of spread the virus to one another, their teachers and their families.
The U.S. Department of Education has so far distributed only about 1.5% of the $13.5 billion allocated for public and private K-12 schools in the federal coronavirus rescue bill. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has suggested schools that don’t fully reopen in the fall may not receive funding.Florida and Texas — both with soaring infection rates — have already ordered full, in-person classes in the fall.
Other states like New York have announced plans to go to a three-day-a-week schedule, which would allow for smaller classes and less exposure for students and faculty. Some school districts are investigating staggered schedules or a blend of in-person and online learning.
Studies suggest that the closure of schools across the nation in the spring resulted in months of lost learning time, with many students struggling to keep up with online lessons when they don’t have a computer or an internet connection.
President Trump said the resistance to opening schools was strictly partisan and an effort to hurt his reelection campaign. “They think it’s going to be good for them politically, so they keep schools closed. No way.”