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TUSD prepares to head back to school — virtually — amid coronavirus outbreak

TUSD prepares to head back to school — virtually — amid coronavirus outbreak

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 665 cases in Arizona, COVID-19 deaths in Pima County rise to 4 series

The TUSD Governing Board held an emergency meeting Wednesday, March 18, to outline plans for serving students during the coronavirus pandemic. A limited number of seats were strategically placed to limit contact between attendees.

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Teachers at Tucson’s largest school district will report for work on Monday, albeit remotely, amid the COVID-19 pandemic that is keeping students away from shuttered K-12 campuses.

TUSD teachers will begin setting up their virtual classrooms, creating lesson plans that will be used for instruction in the event that the state-mandated closure, announced on March 15, goes beyond its planned end date of March 27. 

Offering an entirely digital curriculum is a huge hurdle for a district where 65% of families meet the federal poverty guidelines and many don’t have access to a computer or internet at home. But TUSD hopes to have a hybrid model of remote instruction up and running by April 1.

Tucson Unified has a multi-pronged plan that begins with surveying families to assess the scope of the need. In the wake of this global pandemic, service providers have offered to outfit parts of the district with hot spots for students who lack internet, at a reduced cost. Another hurdle will be providing devices to students who lack one in the home.

Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo thinks it’s likely they will be able to bring a significant portion of the TUSD student body online, either through devices they provide or what families already have at home, but says it will cost at least $1 million.

In the case that the district cannot meet everyone's digital needs, they have a tiered approach. Seniors have priority, many of whom have already earned scholarships and been accepted to colleges around the country. After them, all high schoolers will get outfitted with WiFi and devices. Trujillo says it’s possible that TUSD may have to offer some kind of hard copy workbooks to students in lower grades if they can’t afford to fill the digital need.

“This has been a painful decision for me,” Trujillo said.  “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.”

TUSD is also working to identify duties for all salaried and regular hourly staff for the duration of the school closures whether it ends on March 27 or continues through the school year, Trujillo said.

“Teachers, counselors, social workers — there’s a lot of positions in our district where those job duties can be performed from home or from some remote location,” Trujillo said. “To be able to minimize the risk of the spread of this virus, we’re strongly encouraging everybody, if you can, to telecommute.”

Some jobs have to be done in-person, such as food service, bus drivers and janitors, who will be cleaning and sanitizing. 

Some employees will be asked to take on jobs that are new to them. Bus drivers and monitors will help with cleaning. Crossing guards will help with food preparation, to deliver food to the many students who rely on their school meals. Aides will be working with teachers on lesson planning, and some may opt to join the cleaning crew.

“Our job is to find ways to keep all of our hourly employees working, not have to lay anybody off, not have to tell anybody to stay home and not get paid,” Trujillo said. “Their jobs are going to look different, but everybody’s going to have an opportunity to work.”

Trujillo said the district will work with employees who feel they can’t work during the pandemic due to pre-existing health conditions.

Trujillo has signed on to an open letter with superintendents around Arizona, soon to be made public, asking the state legislature to approve an emergency-funding plan for districts to solve challenges with their digital divide moving into long-term closures.

School officials across the state are waiting with baited breath as lawmakers look at legislation that could relax rules for schools to meet the demands of a fast-changing landscape that few were prepared for.

School districts jumped into action Monday to make sure students were fed. Thousands of K-12 students in Tucson receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch through federal funding, meals that many of those children rely on. 

Being on spring break, TUSD had a window of reprieve to come up with a plan to deliver food to the many families who lack transportation to make it to the schools. 

TUSD will be delivering lunch and a breakfast meal for the following day, to 113 locations for optimal access to kids throughout the district. Any child, regardless of income level or what district they attend, can take advantage of the service. The district will have a map of locations and a schedule posted at tusd1.org this week. If families need assistance finding the closest location to them, they can call 225-4700. The feeding program will run weekdays for the duration of the closure.

TUSD Board Member Bruce Burke praised the district’s contingency plan during an emergency board meeting on Wednesday, March 18, attended by 19 people, mostly board members and district staff, in a room with chairs several feet apart.

“It is going to be a difficult time for all of us, and so it’s going to require patience,” Burke said. “It’s going to require tolerance. And it’s going to require understanding. And I’m quite confident that if we keep that as our single objective in terms of our relationships, and we focus on the safety of our students and our teachers and our community, then we’re going to be just fine. But it is going to be taking all of us, all together, to do it.”

 

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

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