Grievances grow as parents confront open-and-shut school schedules

Parents in Tempe’s three public-school districts have grown weary of campuses being shut down in favor of virtual-only learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. –Wrangler News file photo

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Special report by Tony Gutiérrez

Amy Beeman is not a “COVID denier” by any means.

When everything shut down in March, she and her family went on total lockdown, and her son, now a freshman at Corona del Sol High, left home only to walk the dog, wearing a mask the entire time.

However, Beeman is among many parents upset with the recent decisions by the three school districts in Tempe to shut down their campuses to in-person learning again (with some exceptions) through at least the remainder of the calendar year.

“It wasn’t ideal. I wouldn’t say we were cheering it on, but we were supportive. We were willing to make adjustments to accommodate that thought process for that time period,” Beeman said of the first round of closures in March.

But now, “we do think there are priorities as to what does need to take place and what is a necessity versus what’s just frivolous,” she added.

She’s not opposed to a virtual-only learning option for those who prefer it. It can be useful for students who can’t go to school, such as those going through chemotherapy. But part of Beeman’s frustration is seeing other parts of society open up, such as gyms and restaurants, while schools are closed.

“I have to think we can do better than we are now,” she said. “Our priority is not, ‘Can we go to bars? Can we go to restaurants? Can we go to movies?’ It’s, ‘Can we get our kids educated?’”

Sarah Richardson, who has second-, fourth- and sixth-graders in the Kyrene School District, supports its decision to return to virtual-only learning, but finds common ground with Beeman in believing that schools aren’t prioritized.

‘Nothing in state is closed’

“I absolutely believe that schools should be the priority in reopening, but that also means closing other things. Right now, nothing (else) in Arizona is closed,” Richardson said. “If we want schools to be open, that means people need to be supportive of limiting restaurants or closing bars or closing gyms. We don’t get to have it all right now.”

While acknowledging that her children are lacking socialization with their friends, she says that part of the reason schools are closing is because parents are allowing their children to practice unsafe social distancing, such as attending sleepovers and parties. She also noted that the schools still are providing in-person options for those who absolutely need it.

“Anyone else who doesn’t meet that legal requirement, I say do everything you can to stop COVID so we can send our kids back to school,” Richardson said. “I am just thankful that the district is being extra cautious. I have a lot of empathy for families, because this is very difficult right now, no matter what your choice is. I much hope that we can get the cases back down so that everyone can get back to their choice for learning.”

In statements sent to Wrangler News, Christine Busch, superintendent of Tempe School District No. 3, acknowledged the challenges faced by parents as a result of the district’s decision to close campuses.

Christine Busch

“Parents are truly heroes trying to balance work, caregiving and life with the uncertainties of the science and danger of COVID-19, choosing virtual or in-person instruction for their precious children and the inequities of what’s mandated for public schools with private and charter schools,” Busch said. “Although our metrics guide us back to returning to 100 percent virtual instruction, we are blessed to have options for our children whose families are essential workers, first responders or who don’t have the option to learn virtually from home or from a safe place.”

Dr. Jan Vesely, superintendent of the Kyrene district, said in a statement that despite the challenges, her primary responsibility is for the safety of all students, teachers, staff and the community. She noted that more than 800 students in the district had been quarantined because of potential exposure to the coronavirus on campus within the previous two weeks.

Dr. Jan Vesely

“The COVID pandemic has challenged all of us in ways we could not have imagined. The stress of the pandemic — the disruption of normal activities and isolation from friends — is taking a toll on our children,” Vesely said. “We have made significant improvements in our delivery of online instruction since the spring, and many of our students have adjusted well to distance learning.

“I want to assure families that our school administrators, teachers and staff are all committed to providing not just instruction but also social-emotional support for our students.”

Some students abuse computerized learning

While Tonya Drew is able to take advantage of those exceptions, she is concerned that her children aren’t getting a proper education in that setting. When her children who qualify go to the school, she says, they’re working on a computer in a large room socially distant from each other with a teacher or aide monitoring them.

Part of that struggle is that her children don’t do well with computers. She says that they spend that time playing games or visiting inappropriate websites. For that reason, the family has only one computer for Drew’s husband, and even with the use of chrome books loaned from the school, the extra usage slows the internet speed.

“Being on a computer is not good for them at all,” Drew said. “The district can only get a report when they do something live, not stop it before it happens. The kids know how to do things, and they share with each other. The district can’t even keep up with what the kids are able to do. What they had going on was working for those who wanted it with opening up the schools.”

Beth Hagen, whose two daughters — a second-grader and a fifth-grader — attend Fuller Elementary School, supports the closures yet she, too, is frustrated with the increase in screen time, saying her family is weighing that against the risk of contracting a virus.

Hagen recognizes that many families don’t have an extra computer for their children to use and the effect that extra time has on Wi-Fi usage plans.

“I think we need more top-down assistance. If we want to make education more accessible to everyone given the current situation with this virus, we need to provide internet access for families free who need it,” Hagen said. “We have lunch programs, free breakfast programs in schools. Can we have a program that provides internet access for families that are in need?”

Hagen has expressed the challenge of trying to do her work while her 7-year-old sets up next to her. Recognizing the role that schools play in a child’s social and emotional development, Hagen said that via Zoom her daughters take classes at Dance 101, and her 10-year-old participates in her Girl Scout troop.

“It’s wonderful we live in 2020, and we have that ability to do that. Even though it’s not the same, it’s just not safe to have Girl Scout troop meetings,” she said. “Two weekends ago, we did a Zoom campfire and s’mores night. The troop leader dropped off s’mores kits with graham crackers and marshmallows.”

Lori Bastian, who has two freshmen and a sophomore at Corona del Sol, recently lost a Tempe Union High School District Governing Board election. Getting students back in schools was her primary campaign issue.

Bastian’s biggest concern is what she describes as a lack of communication and transparency.

Different districts, different approaches

Lori Bastian

“Parents have felt in the dark the whole time. When we are given some information and we have input to provide, they’re not asking for our input. That was the big frustration for most parents, just the feeling of not being heard and acknowledged,” she said. “How is it that Chandler Unified can figure this out, but we can’t seem to keep our schools open?”

Bastian said the enforcement of mask-wearing seems to be arbitrary, pointing out that her sons had to wear masks when they were on the sideline at football games but not when they were playing on the field.

“They keep making up the rules as they go,” Bastian said.

Beeman said that because of her position, she’s been accused on social media of not caring if she kills people. She also felt threatened when School Board member Andres Barraza dismissed form emails sent by students, suggesting that the emails actually were their parents playing politics during a Sept. 16 board meeting.

“I know who you are,” Barraza said.

According to Beeman, “Despite all the other stuff going on, that just magnifies my anger and frustration to have parents concerned about providing an education for their kids, and to have a board member to say we’re using a template and we know who you are. It’s frightening as a parent, and it’s appalling as a community member.”

Danielle Pollett, who has a freshman and a senior at Mountain Pointe High and a sixth-grader and a seventh-grader at Pueblo Middle School in Kyrene, thanked TUHSD for “making this tough call” in her comments on a Facebook post from the district.

“I understand why a lot of parents are upset, but me and my kids approached the entire pandemic a little differently,” she said. “It’s more so my responsibility to monitor the online learning and address any concerns we have directly with the teachers instead of harping on the school district.”

Pollett and her husband are trying to maintain a positive attitude to address their children’s social and emotional needs. They try to acknowledge their feelings of grief, disconnection and frustration, and remind them that those feelings are being shared by kids and adults everywhere.

“That makes them feel a little bit more like, ‘We’re all in this together,’ instead of, ‘This is just happening to me,’” she said.

Pollett believes that part of the reason why schools are closed is because people aren’t following guidelines. She noted a movement she discovered on Facebook encouraging parents to not get their kids tested for COVID or report cases to the schools.

“It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just our reality right now,” Pollett said. “If every family was following CDC guidelines, the schools would not have to shut down again.”

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