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TUSD delays school reopenings to November or later as COVID-19 continues

TUSD delays school reopenings to November or later as COVID-19 continues

TUSD board weighs wishes of parents and teachers, health concerns

On Oct. 5, teachers, staffers and supporters rallied when TUSD brought up the possibility of reopening Oct. 19. TUSD now plans to open for hybrid in-person learning on Nov. 12.

Tucson’s largest school district is pushing back its reopening date, potentially to mid-November or even later because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo recommended delaying the start date for hybrid in-person learning until Nov. 12 to allow for more time to create a good instructional model, to assuage some of the concerns about the recent surge of coronavirus cases at the University of Arizona and to learn from the other school districts in the county, which have either already opened for hybrid learning or plan to in the next few weeks.

Although the Pima County Health Department has given schools the go-ahead to open for hybrid — a mix of in-person and online learning — one of the public-health metrics the county and state has been relying on to predict school safety is in the red because of a recent spike at the UA. That heightens the risk for TUSD, which has six campuses that are close to the university.

The governing board’s decision to wait on selecting a start date came after a contentious debate where three board members voiced support for waiting to reopen schools, even for hybrid learning, until January. In recent weeks, the school district had been planning for an Oct. 19 start date.

Board members Rachael Sedgwick, Adelita Grijalva and Leila Counts, said making the decision to wait until the end of the semester would allow both teachers and families some surety on what the next quarter would look like rather than revisiting the topic every couple of weeks.

“I think that we owe our community a path that is clear and that we need to communicate it,” Sedgwick said at the meeting. “I think that the best thing that we can do given the uncertainty today is to just agree that we should put off the opening of school until the end of the winter semester.”

Sahuarita and Vail school districts have already opened schools for hybrid learning, and Tucson’s second-largest school district Sunnyside plans to open on Oct. 19.

Although other local districts have either begun hybrid or plan to later this month, TUSD is in a different position because of the sheer number of people they serve, including about 42,000 students, their families, and thousands of educators and staff, Sedgwick said.

“If we open and people get sick then we are going to decimate the numbers for Pima County, and I think that we have to take that responsibility very seriously,” she said. “We owe our educators some clarity and some certainty as well as our students and all of our community. I think the best thing that we can do is to say we will stay closed until the whole world comes back to normal and hopefully that will be in 2021.”

A staff survey done by Tucson Unified School District found that more than 71% of responding teachers wanted to stick with 100% remote learning for the second quarter, while a parent survey found that 45% of about 20,000 respondents wanted to begin a hybrid model.

The disparity between how many teachers don’t want to return to the classroom until it is safer and the percentage of parents who want to send their kids back to school with the current conditions of the pandemic is the crux of why the TUSD governing board is nearly split on when to reopen schools.

Board President Kristel Foster and Board Member Bruce Burke both emphasized the importance of following the Pima County Health Department guidance on deciding when to open. The local health department has said schools are OK to open for hybrid instruction despite the recent spike in cases at the UA.


Whenever TUSD does open its 80-plus schools, the district’s hybrid model will look different than many of their neighboring districts.

TUSD approved a model on Oct. 6 that has in-person students working with teachers in classrooms in the mornings and remote students working with teachers over Zoom in the afternoons. This method keeps students with the teachers they already have.

This model would have in-person learners on campus four days a week, and on Wednesdays everyone would be learning remotely.

Besides teachers keeping their same students, some of the benefits of this model are that teachers will not have to manage two instructional environments simultaneously, on-campus students will have more socialization time, students who continue with remote learning will have five days a week of live teaching, and there will be blocked out time in the elementary levels for socio-emotional learning and special classes, Trujillo said.

But this plan also means that there is not much room, if any, for teachers who are at high risk of COVID-19 to continue working remotely.


Alicia Lara was alarmed when she received a letter last week that said she should plan to return to her school site Oct. 19 — the date originally considered for hybrid learning to begin. The University High Spanish teacher is immunocompromised and had already been approved for an accommodation to continue working remotely through the American Disabilities Act, which TUSD processed and signed off on.

When the district approved accommodations for teachers requesting to work remotely due to COVID-19, the standard letter says TUSD intends to allow certified teachers covered under the ADA to continue to work remotely until the Pima County Health Department provides authorization to fully open schools and that the volume of students requires they return to the building.

The health department has authorized a return only in hybrid form, not a full return.

When asked why teachers with ADA accommodations are being told to get ready to return, TUSD spokeswoman Leslie Lenhart said the accommodation “must be reasonable and must allow the employee to continue to perform their job and complete all job functions.”

“One possible accommodation could be to work from home, which works especially well when there are no students in the building,” she said. “However, once students return to school, teachers should be on campus to supervise and instruct students, making remote work no longer reasonable.”

TUSD has 53 certified staff members who qualify for ADA accommodations, many who work with students, and 31 of whom are certified teachers, said Lenhart. About 10 ADA approved employees received the letter saying they should be ready to return to school. The Oct. 19 date was pushed back for everyone, but when and if teachers with ADA accommodations are required to return is still not clear.

Lara’s classroom is in the basement of University High. The windows don’t open and the ventilation system is poor — in the summer it’s hot, and in the winter it’s cold, she says.

“So it’s really scary for a lot of people, and it’s really not just for people that are at risk,” she said. “I think everybody’s at risk if they’re in a room with windows that don’t open or no windows at all and poor ventilation. So those are our major concerns.”

Lara wrote a letter to the TUSD board, signed by 38 University High teachers and staff, pointing out that the building is poorly ventilated and classes are overcrowded. Lara has 170 students on her roster, meaning if 45% show up, she’ll be interacting with 77 students a day in a small, poorly ventilated classroom.

At least one other school, Sahuaro High School, sent the board a similar letter, asking the board hold off on reopening the school, with 40 employee signatures.

Lara joined about 40 educators and supporters on Oct. 5 in front of TUSD’s administration building. They wore masks, stood 6 feet apart and held signs that said “Not until it’s safe.”

Of the 2,150 teachers surveyed, more than 71% said they wanted remote learning to continue; 18% want the hybrid model to begin, and 10% want schools to open without any modifications.

“Each student equals money, so it just seems to be really driven by the amount of money they can get for each student,” Lara said.


A big driving factor for TUSD to reopen campuses is the fear of an enrollment drop if parents take their students to neighboring districts or charter schools who are offering in-person learning options.

Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and although the district is eligible for coronavirus stimulus funds to make up for any enrollment loss this year, if students don’t return next year, there is no funding earmarked to account for a budget shortfall.

Trujillo has said at numerous board meetings that he fears not opening could cost the district students.

Board president Foster said with 45% of families wanting to come in person, she’s worried not opening could result in the district having to lay people off.

“We have to have the option to come to school, or we’re going to lose jobs,” she said.

Photos: TUSD food services department provides meals through COVID-19 crisis 

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara.

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