Arizona lawmakers consider contingency plans if schools don't reopen this spring

Arizona lawmakers consider contingency plans if schools don't reopen this spring

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

PHOENIX — State lawmakers are weighing contingency plans in case public schools do not reopen soon or at all this school year.

Senate Bill 1693 introduced late Wednesday spells out that if classes resume by March 30, there would be no requirement for school districts to make up the lost days. The bill also would extend the window for required statewide standard assessment tests through the end of May.

March 30 is the date that State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman set for reopening after a two-week closure announced Sunday in response to the spread of COVID-19 and the fact that teachers were calling in sick.

The legislation crafted by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, has no assumption the emergency will be over by then.

If students are not back in school March 30, their measure would suspend state laws that require there be a certain number of school days and instructional hours.

It also would cancel the annual statewide achievement tests for this year and ensure that the letter grades now assigned to each school do not decline.

The most significant part would require public schools to offer education services “in alternative formats” if they want to get their state aid. Schools would be allowed to continue paying employees to work from home or to perform alternative assignments through the end of the school year.

“Our students can’t afford to lose the last quarter of the school year,” Udall said in a prepared statement. “We trust our educators and school leaders to do everything in their power to ensure students have the stability and the opportunity to continue to learn during this challenging time.”

Hoffman is still reviewing the bill to see how it would work, said Richie Taylor, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

“We don’t have a lot of answers,” he said.

One big question, Taylor said, deals with the question of online learning. “Even in urban areas there are lots of students that don’t have access at home,” he said.

Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said the legislation provides flexibility.

He said instruction can include online lessons for students with access to computers. But the bill also provides the opportunity for teachers to prepare and send home packets of materials for students to review, he said.

Thomas said there is no real reason many subjects cannot be taught remotely.

“You can take the SAT test online,” he said.

But that requires months of preparation, he said, which the state does not have.

“The trick is, we’re in kind of uncharted territory,” which will require educators’ creativity, Thomas said.

The easiest situations to take care of might be for teachers of specific subjects. Consider, Thomas said, someone teaching social studies and the lessons for the next two weeks involve the Civil War.

“Send out some readings, some assignments, some enrichment activities,” he said. Enrichment could include viewing a movie —one a parent could also enjoy and then discuss with a child.

He said this isn’t a one-way street. Students could show what they know, for example, by preparing and sending back a journal.

Open-book tests are also an option, Thomas said. “They’ll get that back to us, either email or some kind of form online or a packet. And we’ll grade that and that will be the grade they get for the assignment.”

Udall said this kind of learning can work, even for students in lower grades. “I think this is a good opportunity, especially for those younger kids, to really home in on some of those basic skills that, at this time of the year, can be reinforced,” she said. Those involve a lot of reading, a lot of practicing math.

“I mean, you can have a kid read to you over the phone,” Udall said.

“And so if we have (schools’) staff that are assigned at home with nothing else to do they can be calling kids and reading with them,” she said. “They can be FaceTiming with kids and reading with them. There can be lots of ways to ensure the kids are still learning something.”

High school seniors present a different problem as they want to get a diploma that will allow them to get into college. The proposed legislation allows the state Board of Education to adopt rules to ensure that happens.

“What we figure is if a student is on track to graduate this year that we’re not going to do anything to prevent them from graduating,” Udall said.

The legislation also contains some provisions designed to provide financial flexibility.

For example, Udall said, a school district may have money it received from the state that is earmarked for student transportation. With no need to use the money that way, district officials would be permitted to reallocate it to other priorities.

The legislation could be debated as early as Thursday, March 19.

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