Teachers throughout Tucson will report for work on Monday, albeit remotely, despite students not being there due to coronavirus closures.
With apparently no additional funding, Tucson’s largest school district along with districts across the state will be setting up virtual classrooms, preparing to deliver remote instruction through at least April 10.
The statewide school closures began March 16, and were to run through March 27. Gov. Doug Ducey announced a two-week extension on Friday, March 20.
State lawmakers passed a bill Thursday, March 19, of emergency measures to ensure students can finish the school year. Among other directives, it would maintain state aid to public schools during extended closures as long as schools provide education to students.
While schools would like to offer a completely digital model, Tucson’s nine major districts would first have to ensure their entire student body has access to high-speed internet and devices, a larger hurdle for some more than others.
For Tucson Unified, offering an entirely digital curriculum is a huge challenge given that 65% of families meet the federal poverty guidelines and many of them don’t have access to a computer or internet at home.
Nonetheless, the district hopes to have a hybrid model of remote instruction, which could include digital instruction and hard-copy packets, up and running by the week of March 30. The multipronged plan begins with surveying families to assess the scope of need, then prioritizing seniors followed by all high schoolers.
“This has been a painful decision for me,” said TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo. “With such limited resources … we had to make the painful decision of what segments of our student body are staring down the barrel of the highest stakes, and it’s our high school kids, because of credit accumulation, because of graduation requirements.”
Trujillo thinks it’s likely TUSD will be able to bring a significant portion of the student body online, either through devices the district provides or devices families have at home, but he says the effort will cost at least $1 million.
Trujillo and Catalina Foothills Superintendent Mary Kamerzell signed on to an open letter with over 50 education leaders around the state asking the legislature to approve emergency funding for districts to solve challenges with a digital-divide during long-term closures.
“The only way for Arizona to educate 1.1 million K-12 students during a statewide closure will be, primarily, through some form of online or virtual learning,” the letter says, adding that while many families have access to internet and devices, “low-income, urban and rural students, families, and communities are not so fortunate.”
“Very quickly, in Arizona, the technology divide will soon become one of our state’s biggest issues,” the letter says, adding that this crisis could be an opportunity “to dramatically reduce the digital divide” by solving technology inequity that has long existed throughout the state.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who proposed the legislation which says schools will have continued funding provided they are educating students throughout the closure, did not return the Star’s requests for comment on how districts are supposed to fund the creation of a remote-instruction model.
Rep. Kirsten Engel, D-Tucson, said she has not seen any serious effort at the legislature to provide funding that would get all Arizona students online.
She said lawmakers have to give schools a lot of leeway at this point, but the current direction on how they’re supposed to offer instruction was vague.
“We left them with this mandate to continue learning, but the only way they can learn is with a wholly new approach, and we haven’t given them any funds, it seems, to be able to make that possible for every student in the state,” she said.
WHAT REMOTE LEARNING LOOKS LIKE
Few local districts have a plan in place to begin remote instruction on March 23, but most say they will have something going in the next week or two through a mix of online and hard-copy instruction. Many Tucson-area school districts have reached out to families to assess the availability of technology and internet access at home.
Here’s what Tucson’s eight other major school districts have in store:
In Flowing Wells, one of the few districts that did not have spring break this week, teachers have been in their classrooms creating online lessons and packets to be sent home on Monday and returned the following Monday.
The digital and hard-copy lessons are the same, says Sarah Lang, fifth grade teacher at Centennial Elementary School.
“We don’t want our kids with internet to have any more advantages than our kids without internet,” she said. “We want to keep it as equitable as possible, so we’re just printing the exact same thing that we’re posting online.”
After handing out meals to children who make use of the district’s free meal service, Lang posts math and writing assignments in Google Classroom and reading videos for her class on YouTube.
And along with much of Flowing Wells’ support staff and certified staff, Lang is calling families to ascertain the level of technology and internet accessibility in the home.
About one-third of Centennial’s fifth grade doesn’t have internet access, Lang says.
Students with internet were doing online reviews this week. Starting next week, Flowing Wells will be teaching new material and have packets ready to be picked up. Lang has also identified which parents don’t have transportation and will mail packets to them.
Unlike Flowing Wells, many local school districts have been on spring break this week. Some have lauded this time as a chance to prepare, and others say it complicated things because staffs were on vacation.
Sahuarita School District says they will resume classes, remotely, on March 23.
They will begin a modified educational program through available online resources, such as Google Classroom, and printed educational materials, which will be available for pickup at Wrightson Ridge and Sopori Elementary schools, along with weekday curbside meal service from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., through the duration of the closure, says spokeswoman Amber Woods.
Teachers will reach out to families on Monday over email, phone and all available methods.
The Sunnyside School District will begin remote learning on Monday for students who have laptops. Spokeswoman Marisela Felix said students should look for emails from their teachers on how to proceed.
District leadership will meet Monday morning to talk about logistics of bringing the entire student body online, what type of online learning resources are available, what type of off-line instruction can be offered, and what they can do about helping families with childcare.
Tucson’s second-largest school district, which has been on spring break this week, already issues laptops to all their fourth- through 12th-graders. Students and teachers in these grades are already familiar with online learning, Felix said.
While having laptops will make it easier for some of Sunnyside’s student body to participate in online learning, some families still lack internet access.
In Sunnyside, 80% of students qualify for federally-funded meals, an indication of poverty. Internet providers have offered to supply free Wi-Fi to families in need, Felix says. She hopes that will help the district get everyone online.
For information about the district’s remote learning, families can go to LearnFromHome.SUSD12.org, starting Monday, March 23. Families are also encouraged to stream the governing board meeting at susd12.org/governing-board-videos, on Tuesday, March 24, at 6:30 p.m.
Sunnyside will send updates through their districtwide parent communication system. Families of students who need to pick up school-issued laptops are encouraged to call their school.
Amphitheater is looking at options, which will likely include both online and hard-copy packets for a large part of their student population who lack online access.
While most of their families have access to text and email on their phones, educating children through a phone is not so easy, says spokeswoman Michelle Valenzuela. And there’s an added complication for households with numerous children who may need several devices for learning.
Valenzuela spoke with one parent who told her that real-time lessons online wouldn’t work for her because while her children are supposed to be at home doing lessons, she’ll be at work and unable to help or monitor them.
“Trying to meet the needs of all our families is going to be challenging,” Valenzuela said. “Our primary concern is to try and help kids not lose the momentum they’ve had all year,” from making sure kindergartners stay on track with their reading to seniors staying on track to graduate.
Marana won’t have direct instruction the week of Monday, March 23, but the district will provide, through email, their website and social media channels, a list of supplemental online resources and activities for at-home learning, beginning Monday, according to spokeswoman Tamara Crawley.
The district intends to distribute Chromebooks to students in need, she said. They are planning and reviewing options related to Wi-Fi access and will release more details soon.
Catalina Foothills is heading into spring break on March 23, and remote learning will not begin “until after that date,” said spokeswoman Julie Farbarik. The district declined to share any details on their remote learning plan.
Farbarik said for the first week of the closures, teachers worked from home, engaged in lesson planning.
“We are moving full-speed ahead to deliver remote learning because this may be a much longer closure,” Kamerzell, the school’s superintendent, said in a statement. “We will be announcing the specific details of our plan to our families first.”
Most of the district’s students have access to technology for online learning, but not all, Farbarik said. The district is considering whether it makes sense to distribute paper packets during a pandemic.
“We’re thinking about this and so many other unique issues presented by COVID-19,” Farbarik said. “Ultimately, all of our decisions are based on delivering safe and meaningful educational opportunities to every student.”
Vail School District teachers will be using Monday and Tuesday to prepare lessons and instruction that will start Wednesday, March 25, said spokeswoman Darcy Mentone.
Principals sent emails to families with general information, and teachers will begin reaching out to families with specifics on what instruction will look like on Monday, March 23.
As far as special education services, the district will speak with families individually about the path forward.
Tanque Verde plans on beginning remote instruction on March 30.
Teachers will be working remotely this coming week to develop educational opportunities, and hourly employees are expected to be “on call,” says spokeswoman Claire Place.
The district will assess what it will take to get teachers and students access to online learning.
“We have had very little direction from the Arizona Department of Education, so we’re trying to pull together resources as quickly as we can,” Place said.
She said schools will be sending out newsletters to families in the coming week.
Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at email@example.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara.
In this Series
Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order
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