Schools Are Open for Learning!

by Blake Herzog

Greater Prescott’s public, charter and private schools have been working out their answers to the question of how to start a school year safely while government and health officials shift their guidance.

One consensus in the debate between school officials, parents and politicians is that education is important and school will happen in whatever format is best for everyone.
Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Joe Howard said the district’s intention is to get all students and staff back on campus as soon as it’s safe to do so: “But in the meantime, we’re going to make it work.”

During a press conference July 23, Gov. Doug Ducey announced Arizona is “Open for Learning,” and he was turning much of the decision-making back to K-12 schools regarding when in-person learning should begin.

An executive order he released the same day said a series of “benchmarks” based on the level of community spread would be released by the Arizona Department of Health Services by Aug. 7, and public and charter schools “shall consider” these guidelines, along with input from county health districts and community needs and resources.

It also requires all public and charter schools to begin teacher-led distance learning by the traditional start of the academic year, and have some form of on-campus learning available by Aug. 17 for students “who have nowhere else to go.” Face masks are required for teachers and staff, and for students with some exceptions.

Ducey also announced new funding to help schools and families, including $40 million to expand rural access to broadband and $20 million for extra support for high-need schools.

Howard said all 3,700 students in his district will start online learning on the originally scheduled first day of Aug. 6, and staff is currently distributing about 350 Chromebooks to students who don’t have access to devices at home, which was also done last spring.

PUSD has published a “Roadmap for Reopening” on its website. For the first two weeks, online instruction will end at noon so teachers can receive additional training about how to deliver distance learning. After that, Howard said, students will be given a full day of material and have scheduled Zoom meetings with their teachers and classmates, where attendance will be taken.

“So that’s one way we’re really approaching it differently than the spring, and maybe than some other school districts and certainly typical distance learning online programs,” he said. Beyond the live classes, students will be provided with recorded lessons from their teachers and self-guided activities.

Once the threat level is determined to be “moderate,” campuses will shift to a hybrid model in which students will likely go on campus two day a week. Full on-campus learning will happen once the risk declines to a minimal level. Parents will have the option of continuing with distance learning, but are being asked to commit to if for at least the first quarter of the year.

Families are being sent more detailed information by their schools about the start of the school year; Howard said one thing they should know going into it is the district has been working closely with health authorities to determine the safest route for all students.

“We have worked closely through this whole thing with our county health department. They’ve been amazing and instrumental in in the partnership. And when building our roadmap, we work closely with them, ran the whole thing by them for their input,” he said.

Howard said officials will use the health department metrics to help determine the right time to bring PUSD students back into the classroom.

“A big reminder is that anyone can opt to distance learning, and we will be providing a place for at-risk students, or students who do not have a place to learn, on one of our campuses, per the governor’s order,” he added.

The governing board of the district serving Prescott Valley and Dewey-Humboldt voted July 23 to begin online learning on the previously scheduled first day of class Aug. 3, and that would continue for all 5,700 students at least through Oct. 9 and the start of fall break.

A letter signed by Superintendent John Podhast and Governing Board President Ryan Gray said the exact timing and content of the state health department’s benchmarks for reopening were unknown, and “this continued uncertainty is not serving the needs of our children, their families, nor our staff in preparing a quality education for every one of our students.”

HUSD’s previously released “Roadmap to Reopening” is similar to PUSD’s in structure, except that when community risk is “moderate” families with the means to continue distance learning from home continue to do that so students with fewer resources can return to campus.

Both districts state they will continue to deliver specialized instruction to special education students according to their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and students with greater needs could be brought back onto campus before other students, when conditions allow.

Kelly Lee, the district’s family and community engagement coordinator, said officials would be seeking further guidance from the state Department of Education on the requirement to make some on-campus learning available by Aug. 17.

Podhast and Gray’s letter concluded: “It is our sincere hope that we will be able to welcome students back to campuses after fall break, but we will only do so if it can be done in a way that is safe for our students, safe for our staff, and safe for our families.”

The state’s private and charter schools must also decide how to best navigate educating K-12 students under these circumstances; some are electing to begin in-person instruction as early as possible, while others are adopting online or hybrid models, at least to begin with.

Basis Prescott starts online instruction Aug. 5 and is tentatively scheduled to start offering optional on-campus classes Sept. 8. Sacred Heart Catholic School will hold its first two weeks of instruction online, then move to a hybrid model if circumstances permit.

Tri-City College Prep High School is hoping to bring its middle school students back on campus Aug. 17 and high schoolers Aug. 26, but dates are subject to change.