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Coronavirus to make big changes likely at Tucson's largest district this fall

Coronavirus to make big changes likely at Tucson's largest district this fall

  • Updated

TUSD students in middle and high school might be required to wear masks in the coming school year, according to recommendations from a task force as the district prepares to reopen in August.

All staff, parents and visitors also would need face coverings when social distancing isn’t possible.

With classes expected to resume Aug. 6, a task force presented recommendations to the Tucson Unified School District governing board Tuesday night that attempt to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Most of the recommendations focused on operations and logistics. A separate presentation on teaching, learning and instructional models is planned for June 23.

Final recommendations are expected to be made in July. Mandatory training for teachers and staff would follow.

Wearing masks

Wearing a mask at school will be optional for kids in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the recommendations.

“They do not wear face coverings because they’re children,” said Nikki Stefan, director of TUSD’s health services. “They have difficulty wearing face coverings. They have them just about anywhere but on their face and the whole idea of a face covering is to cover the face, so if they’re touching their face the entire time, we’re defeating the purpose.”

That’s not to say that some young children can’t be taught to properly wear a mask, Stefan said.

“We’re not discouraging it, but we’re not mandating it at this time,” she said.

Students in sixth through 12th grade would be required to wear face coverings. School staff would monitor usage and verify identities with student ID cards. Students who refuse to wear face coverings would be enrolled in online, off-campus classes, the task force recommended.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo noted that before any transfer occurs, schools would work to determine the reason for the student’s non-compliance and act accordingly.

All staff would be mandated to wear face coverings when they aren’t able to physically distance. The same would be true for parents and campus visitors.

Schools would have face coverings on hand, but students and staff are expected to have their own reusable masks.

A parent survey conducted in May that accounted for about 17,000 TUSD students, found that 39% of responding parents would require their children to wear masks to school. Fourteen percent said they would not and 47% said they would only if the county health department required it.

Starting the day

The task force did not recommend daily temperature checks on campus. However, families would be expected to conduct daily health screenings at home, using a standard set of questions provided by TUSD, before sending a child to school.

For employees, the district is considering an online screener that would provide entrance or denial to a campus based on an employee’s daily responses.

Riding the bus

Students on school buses, regardless of age, would be required to wear a mask because social distancing is not possible when they’re seated two to a bench and the bus is full, the task force recommended.

Students would use hand sanitizer when they get on and off the bus.

Parents who pick up their children at school would be asked to remain in their vehicles rather than wait on campus.

At school

Elementary students would be sent directly to the classroom or a designated area, like a courtyard or portion of the playground, to allow for physical distancing.

Older students would be expected to socially distance until classes begin.

Lessons on hygiene and ways to reduce the spread of the coronavirus are also anticipated. Breaks are encouraged for young children every two hours, with hand-washing happening during that time. Students would also be given individual supply kits, rather than sharing glue sticks and scissors and pencils.

Desks would be separated to create distance, facing forward rather than grouped in a way that fosters collaboration, said TUSD Assistant Superintendent Richard Sanchez.

At the lower grades, cooperative learning centers — reading rugs and bean bags that are a staple of many classrooms — will have to go.

“For us to really maintain the health and safety of the students and make sure that each room is disinfected each and every single night, unfortunately, the classroom configuration is going to have to change,” Sanchez said. “The fewer excess furniture that we have in a room, the better it’s going to be.”

Staffers will direct traffic and monitor social distancing between younger students in hallways. Signage and markers will help in that effort.

Lunches would be staggered by grade levels even more than they are now.

At recess, classes may be assigned specific play areas.

Older students will be expected to follow directional markings and not linger during passing periods.

Feeling ill

Students showing signs of the coronavirus will be sent to the health office, as is the case for any other illness.

They’ll be screened and sent home if they exhibit symptoms, and will be unable to return to school until they are symptom-free for 72 hours — up from the traditional 24-hour period.

Despite not conducting daily temperature checks at school, the district plans to purchase no-contact infrared thermometers for use when needed.

Suspected cases of COVID-19 would be reported to the Pima County Health Department.

Cleaning up

The recommendations call for school bathrooms to be cleaned hourly, buses to be cleaned twice daily and the creation of disinfecting schedules that would be monitored with school staff trained on proper disinfecting procedures.

Disinfecting mist systems that cover large areas have been purchased for each site with the intent of using them on every school bus and campus common areas. To improve indoor air quality, air filters are being replaced and outside air dampers and fresh air intake systems are being evaluated.

To implement the kind of changes recommended on such a large scale, a substantial budget increase will be proposed to the board, Trujillo said.

Online alternatives

While Tucson-area school districts have been contemplating ways to give families the option of online instruction, Arizona’s school funding structure isn’t set up for that. Instead it’s based on classroom instructional time and daily attendance.

Trujillo says there’s talk that the state Legislature will reconvene for a special session in the coming weeks to consider giving schools the flexibility to offer more online or hybrid programming without taking a hit to their budgets.

That flexibility is key not only to accommodate families’ needs and wishes, but also to keep class sizes down to allow for physical distancing at school.

If schools are unable to offer that flexibility, space will be limited and additional measures would need to be considered, Trujillo said.

The recommendations were formed in alignment with guidance from the Arizona Department of Education, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Pima County Health Department.

Input from employee groups, students and families was also taken into consideration as was the need for fiscal responsibility.

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