By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer San Tan Sun
A divided Chandler Unified School District Governing Board has voted advance the reopening of classrooms by letting kids in preschool through second grade back on campuses by Sept. 14.
Partially bowing to the wishes of many concerned parents, the board on Sept. 2 voted 3-2 on a staggered reopening, with third-sixth graders returning Sept. 21.
High school and junior high students will remain in distance learning until the October start of the second semester and students in all grades can continue to remain learning at home if their parents want them to.
The board’s decision reverses plans set earlier this summer that delayed all in-person teaching at Chandler Unified’s 42 campuses until Oct. 13 in order to avoid the risk of students and staff contracting COVID-19.
But county and state public health data show the transmission risk has dropped to a level that experts believe is safe enough to allow for a hybrid approach to for students.
Chandler Unified’s rolling reopening mirrors that of Kyrene School District, which will start allowing K-2 students into classrooms Sept. 17, followed a week later. Middle Schools won’t reopen until Oct. 13.
Gilbert Public Schools opened for hybrid learning in all grades last week, with kids in class two days a week, broken down alphabetically so the entire student body is not on campus at one time.
Meanwhile, Higley Unified opened for full five-day-a-week in-classroom learning while Mesa Public Schools will begin a hybrid learning along the lines of the GPS format on Sept. 14. Tempe Union has not yet set a date for its hybrid learning to begin.
The Chandler Unified board’s decision came the day before the county Public Health Department released the latest data on virus cases per 100,000 people, the percent of new positive tests and the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-19-like symptoms.
The county data, covering the last week of August and updated every Thursday, show Chandler Unified now has a minimal level for the latter two benchmarks at in a moderate level for cases per 100,000.
The Maricopa County Public Health Department says districts can start moving away from all-virtual learning once the positivity rate in tests is below 7 percent for two consecutive weeks.
Within CUSD boundaries, data show, the positivity rate was 4.67 percent Aug. 23-29 and 3.67 percent the week before.
But some board members are not convinced the stats are strong enough to warrant any in-person learning.
Lindsay Love and Lara Bruner voted against reopening Chandler’s elementary schools earlier than planned because of the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak occurring at one of the district’s campuses.
“I don’t think it’s wise right now,” said Bruner, who felt CUSD should wait until the infection rate remained steady under 3 percent before reopening any campuses.
Love felt the two-week rule used by health experts was not sufficient for deciding when it was safe for school districts to reopen.
It seems like a bit of a “knee-jerk reaction,” she said, to make a major decision based on a limited amount of data that could suddenly fluctuate.
Board President Barb Mozdzen said the community’s infection rate may never get down to a low enough level until a vaccine becomes available, and felt that should not stop CUSD from reopening its schools.
Virtual learning does not appear to be effective for many students, Mozdzen added, and has not been improving since the school year started in early August.
It’s time to allow parents the choice of deciding whether they want their children to be back in the classroom, she said.
“We are increasing the achievement gaps all over this district,” she said. “The metrics support reopening in a hybrid method.”
Frank Narducci, assistant superintendent of elementary education, said CUSD prioritized bringing the younger grade levels back first so that teachers could have some additional time introducing them to the customs and protocols of in-person learning.
“It would allow staff to be able to work with them with a little more care,” Narducci said.
This year is the first educational experience for Chandler’s preschoolers and kindergartners, Narducci added, so they don’t understand and haven’t seen yet how the school system should normally operate.
Under this staggering model, Narducci said the elementary campuses would practice social distancing guidelines and attempt to keep class sizes as low as possible.
The district’s data show 81 percent of its kindergarten classes would have fewer than 18 students enrolled, 17 percent would have between 19 and 22 students and less than 2 percent would have more than 23 students.
CUSD evaluated a hybrid schedule that would have involved students splitting their week between in-person teaching on some days and virtual learning on the others.
Administrators said the logistics of deploying such a hybrid schedule would have been much more complicated and the district would have had to re-configure new bus routes.
The board further considered opening up Chandler’s secondary schools before the second quarter started, but board member David Evans joined Love and Bruner to vote that proposal down.
Evans said he worried how disruptive it would be to ask high school students to suddenly transition from virtual to in-person learning in the middle of their first quarter.
The middle or end of September would be the “worst possible time” to have high schoolers quickly reorient themselves back to school, Evans said, because they’re already focused on studying for important exams.
“It doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said.
The board’s decision to reopen elementary schools conflicts with the wishes of many teachers, who preferred keeping campuses closed until October.
According to a district survey, 67 percent of teachers felt in-person instruction should not start until after fall break and 59 percent didn’t feel immediately prepared to return to teaching in their classrooms.
Yet the board’s decision will likely please many parents who have been asking CUSD to return to in-person teaching.
Among the 1,200 emails and comments submitted by parents to the district in recent weeks, more than 58 percent of them demanded the district reopen schools as soon as possible.
“This visual learning is a joke,” the parent of a Hamilton High School student wrote in an email. “I will be taking my daughter out of CUSD if this does not happen soon. No way am I allowing my tax dollars to pay for this joke.”
The mother of a Chandler High School student also threatened to withdraw their child from the district if CUSD did not reopen its campuses immediately.
“I specifically bought a home in Chandler when my kids were toddlers because of the school district,” the mother wrote. “Over the years I have stayed in Chandler because I thought the schools were so good. I am now so disgusted with the district.”
The district’s administrators have already reported student enrollment was much lower than expected this school year, which could impact how much money CUSD receives from the state.
Several parents have urged CUSD to keep all campuses closed until at least Oct. 13 and felt it was irresponsible to keep changing how and when schools were to reopen.
“My daughter is gaining the routine of being virtual and is comfortable,” a Haley Elementary parent wrote. “It would be irresponsible to consider partial data to make a rash decision to return in person.”
Other parents pointed to the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases reported at Arizona State University as a reason to keep Chandler’s campuses closed for the next few weeks.
‘Is ASU not enough of an example,” a Hull Elementary parent asked the school board. “The schools and state rushing will only create another surge.”