AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin In this June 1, 2020 file photo, Kristina Washington, special education staff member at Desert Heights Preparatory Academy, walks past a series of desks and chairs at the school in Phoenix, returning to her classroom for only the second time since the coronavirus outbreak closed schools.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

At least two East Valley school districts changed course this week on returning to in-person classes following the holidays.

Arizona schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman asked Gov. Doug Ducey Saturday to return schools to online learning for at least two weeks as officials continue to monitor the severity of community spread of COVID-19 following the holidays.

Ducey rejected the request and sidestepped responsibility for school closures, which he has repeatedly called a local matter.

By Monday, educators in two Southeast Valley school districts successfully pressured their districts to move back to an online learning model or extending their hybrid learning model as teachers threatened to call out sick on the first day of classes.

Teachers unions for Gilbert Public Schools and the Chandler Unified School District acknowledged the planned sickouts in statements posted online last week. Both unions asked that their districts take more time to analyze health metrics after the holidays before reopening.

Hoffman’s ask came at the start of the new year but capped off a year where the debate over how best to educate Arizona’s students during the coronavirus pandemic has divided districts and school communities.

On Sunday, the day before classes were set to resume for many districts, the state reported a record 17,200 new cases of COVID-19. When Gov. Doug Ducey first ordered the closure of schools in March, there were only 1,157 known coronavirus cases and 20 deaths in the entire state, according to FOX 10.

The Gilbert teacher’s union asked that the district extend its hybrid learning model, where students attend in-person classes on different days of the week to allow for more social distancing. The Chandler teacher’s union asked the district to return to full-time online learning until they had time to implement the recommendations of the district’s COVID task force. 

“Our educators deserve a classroom and workspace that is safe according to the best available science, and they deserve to be heard as they express their valid concerns about those classrooms and workspaces,” the letter from the Chandler Education Association read.

Katie Nash, a Chandler High School teacher and president of the Chandler Education Association, said teachers’ move to call out sick follows mounting frustration from educators in the district. 

According to Nash, as many as 600 educators, or roughly 25% of the district’s certified staff, indicated that they could call out sick. She said the number could have been enough to shut down the district.

Following the letter from the teacher’s union posted last week, Chandler Unified ultimately met Monday, the night before the first day of classes, to discuss possible remote learning options for the coming weeks.

Nash said Hoffman’s statement was “significant” in influencing the district to move the meeting and consider remote learning options, particularly since Gov. Doug Ducey has left decisions about whether to close schools solely up to individual districts. 

CJ Karamargin, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, told The Copper Courier that the decision to keep schools open for in-person classes was a local decision, and the governor would not be considering the request.

“[Hoffman’s statement] gave some more state-level pressure that we were needing to help support our call,” Nash said.

Chandler board president Barb Mozdzen expressed frustration at the state’s inaction during the school board meeting on Monday. 

“I feel as school boards we are unsupported also in all of this, by those individuals who have the ability to do things that we don’t have the ability to do,” Mozden said. “Whoever that might be.”

Which Districts Are Pivoting?

At least one school district, the largest in the state, was already following Hoffman’s suggestion.

Mesa Public Schools, which serves approximately 59,000 students, announced in December that its students would remain online from Jan. 4-15.

In a district letter sent last month, Mesa Superintendent Andi Fourlis said the district would take the two weeks of remote learning to update its database of positive COVID-19 cases. They would then use the data to determine whether the district should return to in-person classes on Jan. 19. 

Phoenix’s Deer Valley Unified School District also started the semester online on Monday. Students in grades K-8 will return to in-person learning on Jan. 19, while the district’s high school students will return on Jan. 25.

Some districts, like the Agua Fria Union High School District, pivoted back to online learning at the end of last semester after attempting a hybrid return to in-person classes in the fall. Others, like the Phoenix Union High School District and the Tucson Unified School District, opted not to return to in-person classes last semester and have yet to resume in-person classes.

But many districts had planned to continue holding in-person classes this semester, including Chandler Unified, Peoria Unified, and Gilbert Public Schools, some of the largest districts in the state. 

Both Chandler and Gilbert, where teachers have threatened to call out sick, held governing board meetings on Monday night to discuss their learning options.

Chandler, which serves 44,000 students, voted to keep students in online classes until Jan. 19.

The board also voted to make Tuesday 5 a teacher workday to prepare for the first day of classes on Wednesday.

On Monday, the Gilbert Public Schools governing board ultimately voted to extend its hybrid learning model, where students attend in-person classes on different days of the week to allow for more social distancing, through Jan. 29. 

Peoria Unified, which kicked off in-person classes on Monday, had 97 absences on that first day back, which tracks for a typical Monday, according to district spokesperson Danielle Aiery.

Airey said the district does not plan to move to online classes at this time. Instead, they will continue to monitor the spread of the virus within their community and make necessary changes along the way.

Regarding Hoffman’s recent comments, Airey referenced county guidance, which says that schools can remain open regardless of data if they can do so safely. 

Originally, county health metrics were established to help schools understand the level of community spread of the virus in their area. Schools would then monitor three criteria when determining whether to stay open: the number of cases, the percentage of positive tests, and the rate of hospital visits. 

If all three of those criteria were considered a substantial risk, or if there was a substantial level of community spread of the virus in a school community, the county recommended schools transition to online learning.

But the recommendations are just that, and as of Monday, every Valley school district showed all three health metrics in the red, according to the county’s schools COVID-19 dashboard.

“We know that in-person learning is best for most students and we are proud that we can continue to safely provide that option for our families,” Airey wrote in a statement. “We are also grateful to the many teachers who are teaching virtually and continue to provide that choice for families who feel it’s best for their child.”

‘Discouraged With Our Whole Community’

Nash, president of the Chandler’s teacher’s union, said Monday after the vote that most Chandler teachers were happy with the decision to return online.

In December, the Chandler Education Association surveyed 1,200 educators and found that roughly 65% of them did not feel safe returning to in-person classes this week. Another 70% felt that returning to online learning for the first two weeks after winter break would give the community time to “reset.”

On Monday, Chandler board member Lindsay Love acknowledged why teachers were anxious about returning to classes.

“We are in a district where we have lost a teacher. We have lost staff,” Love said. “It’s not a game.”

Love also referenced social media posts showing parties over the New Year’s Eve holiday where hundreds of students had recently gathered.

Arizona’s Family reported last week that a Gilbert homeowner was selling hundreds of tickets to a private New Year’s Eve party at their home. A post circulated later on Instagram showed hundreds of students dancing at a party without masks, with several students from East Valley high schools bragging in the comments about attending the party.

The post has since been deleted. Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies told AZ Family that they responded to the party and that the County Attorney’s Office is reviewing evidence to determine if criminal charges will be filed. 

Mozdzen, the Chandler board president, said Monday she was discouraged by the community’s risky behaviors.

“This whole situation to me is very distressing, that we don’t have the community support,” Mozdzen said. “The lack of regard for other individuals is very, very concerning.”

Board members also expressed concern that, without community adherence to public health guidelines to curb the spread of the virus, a return to online learning might do little to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“I really hope that our community takes this seriously but I feel like in six weeks, in four weeks, we might be in the same place if our community does not support this,” Love said.

Have thoughts about your students returning to in-person classes? Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.