Story and photos by Joyce Coronel
UPDATE: This is a developing story. Just as Wrangler News was going to press, a letter sent by members of the Arizona School Board urged Gov. Ducey, State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman and state legislators to keep schools closed through Oct. 1; fund distance learning at the same level as in-person instruction; wave the 180-day instructional requirement for the 2020/21 school year; and suspend statewide standardized assessment, among other demands. The letter was signed by members of school district governing boards from around the state, including some from the Kyrene schools, Tempe Elementary and Tempe Union High School districts. The controversy continues and Wrangler News will keep you updated.
They braved a brutally hot summer afternoon to let Tempe Union High School District’s governing board that they were fed up with the district’s plan for how school would reopen.
Someone was listening, it seems, because the district has since decided to change its plan. At press time, TUHSD has decided to offer five days a week of in-person instruction in addition to an online option.
But before that announcement was made, about 200 parents and students demonstrated on the sidewalk in front of district headquarters June 24 as the governing board met inside. Wearing masks and carrying homemade posters proclaiming their disenchantment, the protestors stood in the blazing sun.
Their signs summed up how they felt: “High School is Essential,” “1 day? No Way!” Passing motorists honked their horns, waving and cheering.
Among the demonstrators was Lori Bastian, a mom of three sons who will attend Corona del Sol when schools reopen. Although she’d never considered holding public office, the brouhaha over TUHSD’s handling of the school’s reopening convinced her to declare her intent to run for the school board. Eight possible candidates are vying for three spots on the board in the November general election.
“This will be a one-time thing. I’m only in it because I feel like we need a parent on the board—there are no parents of current students on the board,” Bastian said.
The big turnout at the rally in front of the district offices, she said, “just goes to show this is a big issue affecting so many families in our community. We need to have more options like the other districts in our area.”
Other parents at the demonstration agreed.
Christine Demarino has one daughter going into her junior year at Corona.
“I think they need to be back at school,” Demarino said. “A lot of them are suffering as far as emotionally. They are missing all their friends and the extra social activities that they have in school.”
Danielle Ulm was at the rally with her son Colby who is going into his sophomore year at Marcos. Colby has an Individualized Education Program for special education services.
“We’re very concerned that going forward, he’s not going to have the tools and the support that he deserves in an online, home setting,” Ulm said. “And he needs to be in the classroom—it’s part of the socialization. I’m really worried about the kids with IEPs and 504s will be falling behind.”
Chuck Royalty, who has a son at Marcos, said he felt “abandoned” by the district and that his son’s online education experience last semester was difficult.
“Crash and burn. It was horrible in every way. I can’t see him go through that again,” Royalty said.
“As a parent I can’t see the difference between being in contact with their friends one day a week and being in contact with them five days a week or even four days a week.”
All of that was before TUHSD’s Superintendent, Dr. Kevin Mendivil, sent an email to parents June 29 regarding the reopening of schools in the district. Prior to the email, the district’s plan to have in-person instruction just one day a week sparked the protest.
In the June 29 email, Mendivil referred to Gov. Doug Ducey’s orders concerning the criteria districts needed to follow in order to ensure budget stability. “We will continue to acknowledge the governor’s newest guidelines and will make a shift in our planning and program offerings,” the email from Mendivil reads in part.
Ducey’s criteria states that schools “must provide education in-person the same number of days per week that they did last school year.”
According to the email, TUHSD will offer five days a week of in-person instruction, a full-time online option and a virtual learning model third option should schools be ordered to close again.
“We’re very pleased that Tempe Union is offering a five-day, in-person option,” Bastian said.
“We’re sad that they did it only because of the governor’s executive order. The superintendent made it very clear that was the only reason he had made the change, so we’re still concerned that there’s not much transparency or communication between parents and the district.”
Megan Sterling, executive director of community relations for TUHSD, said the district takes parents’ feedback “very seriously,” and has been planning with an eye toward safety.
“We have been planning for a variety of options and Governor Ducey’s latest series of announcements meant that we had to offer in-person instruction in order to receive level funding,” Sterling said.
Students will be kept safe, Sterling added, through a variety of measures. Staff and students will be required to wear face masks to comply with city and county regulations. In addition, there will be a reduction in class sizes for in-person instruction and the minimization of large groups.
Other changes to increase safety include revamping classroom layouts to increase social distancing; daily disinfection of classroom touchpoints; twice-daily disinfection of bathroom touchpoints; signs posted in highly visible locations to remind students and staff of everyday protective measures; floor signage to indicate social distancing and directional routes; and regular announcements over the intercom about ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Parents and families will receive regular communication from the district, Sterling said.