By Joyce Coronel
Editor’s note: Coverage of special education concerns, athletics and extracurricular activities, three other areas of concern raised by TUHSD parents’ inquires, is forthcoming. This is a developing story, so be sure to follow updates at WranglerNews.com, our Facebook page and our upcoming July 25 edition.
Town Hall meetings typically draw a crowd, with audience members eager to take to the microphone, make their point and ask a question. Applause and jeers regularly interrupt.
Of course, this is anything but a typical year and the Tempe Union High School District’s town hall meeting July 14 took place virtually with a panel of TUHSD staff and leadership responding to questions that were emailed earlier. Megan Sterling, executive director of community relations for TUHSD, moderated the event and said the district set up a form online for interested parties to submit questions that could be “potentially answered.”
“We received close to 700 submissions –699, to be exact—and the majority of them were from parents,” Sterling said. A table provided by the district showed 517 questions were submitted by parents. The rest were sent by students, teachers, staff members and others.
Let’s just say the community had a few questions after the way the fourth quarter ended last spring. “Keep Our Kids in School—Tempe Union,” a Facebook page that sprang up several weeks ago, has proven to be a hotbed of comments expressing the frustration and anxieties of parents faced with trying to balance their children’s educational needs with genuine safety concerns. Many members of the group tuned into the TUHSD YouTube channel to watch the 40-minute town hall meeting.
Dr. Kevin Mendivil, TUHSD superintendent, took to the podium first.
“Before we begin asking questions, I want to frame our session tonight. First, Gov. Ducey’s executive order from June 29 delayed the start of in-person instruction until Aug. 17,” Mendivil said.
“At this time there is also a very reasonable expectation that this delay may be extended as COVID-19 numbers fluctuate. The statewide mandate is an important underpinning to the answers presented tonight.”
He emphasized that if viewers’ questions were not answered, they should contact their individual school’s administration. The goal of the forum, he said, was to clarify the available options, however, other issues also were addressed during the meeting.
Classes are scheduled to begin online Monday, Aug.3, with in-person instruction available Monday, Aug. 17—at least for now. “We remind you that all information we share tonight is current as of today,” Mendivil said.
A July 13 letter signed by 100 members of the Arizona State School Board and health care professionals urged Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman to delay the start of in-person classes until at least Oct. 1.
Mendivil alluded to the escalating number of COVID-19 cases in the state. “At this time, there is also a very reasonable expectation that this delay [until Aug. 17] may be extended as COVID-19 numbers fluctuate. The statewide mandate is an important underpinning to the answers presented tonight,” Mendivil noted.
Parents are faced with two choices for the coming school year at TUHSD: A completely online, virtual model or in-person instruction five days a week. Students will be allowed to switch between the two models at the end of the first semester.
Sean McDonald, the district’s assistant superintendent for operations and student safety, said that all students and staff on campus will be required to wear face coverings. A shield may be used but only in conjunction with a mask.
Masks have been a “hot topic for months,” McDonald said, but the district will abide by the mandates issued by Maricopa County as well as the cities of Tempe and Phoenix.
“We understand that face coverings may be challenging for employees and their students to wear in an all-day setting such as school,” McDonald acknowledged.
Students and staff must also abide by social distancing requirements, he said, and classrooms will be designed to allow for the greatest space possible between students’ desks.
Hallways will have one-way routes to maintain social distancing requirements and only three or four students will be allowed to use the restroom at a time. Every other stall and every other sink will be available.
Amy Jo Overlin, M.D., spoke to health-related issues raised by parents’ emails.
“If a positive COVID case is identified while a student or employee is on campus, then they will be sent home immediately. If the student does not have immediate transportation, then they will be placed in an isolation room on the school’s campus until a parent or guardian can safely pick them up,” Overlin said. That room will then be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after 24 hours have elapsed. This, Overlin noted, was to keep cleaning staff safe.
Affected student families and employees will be notified of positive cases of COVID-19 on campus. If the student or employee that came in contact with the sick individual displays any signs or symptoms of COVID-19, they will be asked to stay home and report the issue to the school administration so that contact tracing can be done.
Overlin asked parents to “try not to prejudge. We are continuing to get new information so our plan may adjust but currently it’s based off state mandates as well as the numbers within the schools themselves.”
The district will be keeping track of positive tests and if that number reaches a level that makes it unsafe to continue in-person classes “then we will obviously be switching back to the all online platform,” Overlin said.
McDonald stated that TUHSD will clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces such as keyboards, door handles, sinks and fountains during the school day as much as possible and will perform a deep cleaning daily.
Kim Hilgers, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning for TUHSD, said many have asked about the blended learning model the district was originally planning to offer but has since eliminated. That plan, Hilgers said, would have involved students attending in-person classes some days and online other days. State funding requirements came into play though and necessitated that schools be open to all students five days a week, she said.
No instruction will take place in person until Aug. 17 due to Ducey’s executive order. All classes begin online Aug. 3.
“The advantage of beginning virtually is that all of the courses students registered for in the spring still remain intact,” Hilgers said. “Teachers will teach virtually from their homes or from the classroom in real time with lessons that are aligned to standards. This option will be in place until it’s safe for staff and students to return back to school.”
For those who opt for Tempe Union Online, the teaching process will be in real time. Students will be engaging virtually online with teachers and will follow their master schedule with attendance taken for each course. They will work at their own pace and have three courses every nine weeks.
Updates to the district’s FAQs will be made online later this week. Information: tempeunion.org or email email@example.com.