Notes From COVID Classrooms: Arizona Teachers, Parents Grapple With Tough School Reopening Decisions

Shutterstock Photo, design by Tania Lili.

By Jessica Swarner

September 16, 2020

We could have been planning ahead and that just didn’t happen. And now we’re all in a really bad spot.”

This is part one of a series examining the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Arizona’s education system. Read the full series here.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jacob Frantz had every intention of returning to teach in Queen Creek High School classroom this fall. 

Even as the virus spread and learning moved online, he stuck to his contract. 

But when his district voted in early August to reopen without first meeting the state’s three county-level benchmarks, he decided he needed to bow out — for his students’ safety, and his peace of mind. 

“I know for me as well, just the pure stress and anxiety of what’s happening, I wasn’t in a place to teach,” he told The Copper Courier shortly after resigning. “That ever-present danger and the knowledge that I’m putting my students in danger the way I’m having them in class was just not something that makes a safe learning environment.” 

Many other teachers in the district shared Frantz’s fears –– about half of his school’s science department also resigned or were considering it.

Frantz said despite his immense love for his students, facing them every day in a small enclosed room with only masks, hand sanitizer, and a bottle of cleaning fluid to help was too much of a problem to bear. 

“It’s been rough. Cleaning up all the work that was on my walls and seeing the students’ names for the past few years … it’s been rough,” he said. “But my department was gone. Our science department was outstanding, we had amazing test scores, we worked together incredibly well … and this decision by our district has just obliterated it.” 

RELATED: Dozens of Arizona Teachers Quit While Schools Attempt to Reopen Classrooms

Since the state introduced the COVID-19 benchmarks, Maricopa County has crunched the data further to give ratings to each individual district. Queen Creek Unified is now considered “moderate risk” and recommended to move to “hybrid” learning.

But each district can define what “hybrid” means, as long as it includes a mix of in-person and online learning. 

For example, some schools have decided to send small numbers of students to school on certain days of the week and switch out the groups. But for some it means much slower to normal schooling––the J.O. Combs Unified School District in Pima County voted this week to begin “hybrid” learning Sept. 8, defining their version as parents who want in-person instruction sending their kids in five days a week and parents who opt to remain online can do so indefinitely. 

Either way, when classrooms open in any capacity, teachers are being expected to return whether they feel comfortable or not, unless they have an American Disabilities Act-approved exception. 

Staying Remote

While Frantz and other teachers have dealt with the stress of classrooms reopening, some teachers are expecting to be online for a longer time. Possibly through the end of the year. 

Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher with Deer Valley Unified School District, has tried to find ways to keep her young students entertained. She has decorated a room at home with flamingos and posters where she teaches the kids virtually. 

But even with the visuals and short Zoom meetings with lots of breaks, Fisher acknowledges her job requires a lot of support from parents. 

“I cannot imagine what it is like on their side of the screen,” Fisher said. “They’re constantly having to sit with and teach them, ‘This is the mute and the unmute’ … and keeping them from turning and running around the house with their iPad.” 

RELATED: Is It Time for the iPad to Babysit? Most Families Doing Distance Learning Won’t Have Outside Help

Austin Byers, who is starting his first year of teaching in a pandemic, has it a little easier with his Gilbert high schoolers. 

“There’s a lot of students who thrive in this environment … who are actually doing really, really well this year,” Byers told The Copper Courier. “Other students are having challenges, but luckily we are really accessible to them.” 

His school district, Higley Unified, now meets the state’s benchmarks (although Maricopa County as a whole doesn’t, the county breaks down the numbers for each district). They plan to reopen in person Sept. 8 unless the COVID-19 numbers in the area rise once again. 

Byers, who also coaches the school’s e-sports team, said all of the tumult still hasn’t ruined his enthusiasm for his new career. 

“I am very lucky that this is happening my first year, because I have so much support in my district,” he said. “And I’m still so excited to be a teacher that it still feels like a positive experience to start my first year.” 

To Go or Not to Go

For some parents, especially those with older children, online learning has been the way to go. Scottsdale parent Karen Treon had her middle schooler and high schooler enroll at ASU Prep Digital, where they will stay online through the rest of the year. 

Treon said her family wanted to avoid the back-and-forth of the reopening debate and just be able to focus on learning. 

To her, the state has largely bungled its COVID-19 response and unfairly placed the burden of deciding when to reopen schools on district board members unqualified to make that decision. 

“It’s inexcusable to me,” she told The Copper Courier. “We could have been thinking ahead, we could have been working ahead, we could have been planning ahead and that just didn’t happen. And now we’re all in a really bad spot.” 

Christine Thompson, president of education advocacy group Expect More Arizona and the mom of two twin elementary schoolers, says in-person instruction is ideal for her and many others.

Learning from home has been difficult for two small children who are still learning basic skills, she said. 

“My kids are first-graders … they’re just learning how to navigate computers,” Thompson said. “Many haven’t even learned to read yet or are just starting.”  

But for now, she’s happy the Madison School District is sticking to the state’s benchmarks. 

It does worry her, though, that there will be many kids behind in mental health and learning when the classrooms do reopen. 

“There are going to be students who come out of this, they might not have been on the same academic path they were on before, but they’re going to be on track to be at grade level, so how do we make sure those kids keep on track?” she said. “But there are going to be a lot of students who are adversely impacted by this who are going to have gaps in their learning and we’re going to need to figure out where those are and really create a new baseline.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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