Parents will need to prepare themselves for having kids around the house when the school year starts next month after two major Tucson school districts announced that they will only be providing online instruction until it's safe to return to the traditional classroom.
Last week, in response to Arizona's out-of-control spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Doug Ducey delayed the start of the school year by two weeks, to Monday, Aug. 17. But two districts, Tucson Unified School District and Sunnyside Unified School District, announced over the holiday weekend that they would begin the school year with an online-only program.
As of the Weekly's deadline, other districts were still moving forward with plans to provide either in-class instruction or distance learning, but that could change as cases of COVID-19 continue to climb.
In a message to parents, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said that because of the uncertainty about returning to in-person instruction, all students will begin the school year via remote learning on Monday, Aug. 10. The families who want their children to return to in-person learning can transition to that once it's safe to do so.
"Although starting this school year remotely is not ideal, we are committed to offering every child quality and rigorous curriculum, five days a week, from our highly qualified teachers," Trujillo wrote.
Using Zoom and recorded lessons, approved learning programs and offline homework, TUSD's teachers are aiming to provide as comprehensive a learning experience as possible in the age of COVID-19. The district is asking parents to register online for each child indicating their choice for either remote learning or on-campus instruction when it's available. This will help them plan for the best way to reopen schools in the future.
Parents can submit and change their preferences until Saturday, Aug. 1. But once the school year begins, TUSD will create defined intervals when parents can transition their children from one option to another.
TUSD's Next Steps 2020, which the district is calling "A New Era for Education," lays out the details for both on-campus and at-home learning for all grades K-12.
In-person instruction will include "blended learning" to ensure that students can switch to remote learning quickly if needed, and each school will be expected to practice social distancing, enhanced sanitary protocols and mandatory use of face masks. Extracurricular activities and high school athletics will still be available, with new safety precautions in place.
Remote learning will include video classes with students and teachers all together, as well as one-on-one Zoom meetings. All schedules will be "clearly articulated" to families and online students will be able to participate virtually in programs, assemblies and special events at their schools.
A special education team will work directly with families to accommodate Individualized Education Plans, and all technology and technical support will be provided.
Trujillo said the safety and well-being of the district's students and staff are a top priority when they make decisions for how to move forward. They are expected to provide updates in the coming weeks before the new school year begins.
Jessica Solomakha has a son entering second grade in TUSD. She works full-time so it would be ideal if her children could go back to school, but she is "extremely nervous" about doing that.
"I feel with the precautions TUSD is taking it's not quite enough and virtual learning is the safest option and most likely the route I will take, but I'd much rather send him back to school where he can interact with children his age and where he can get his teacher to better explain something to him that he doesn't understand, and it's easier to do that in person," Solomakha said. "I unfortunately don't know how to teach my kids the way teachers do and I'm scared my kid is going to fall behind in learning because of all of this."
She hoped that TUSD would consider doing rotational shifts where small groups of students would come to school for a few hours and then go home. That would make her feel safer about having her son in a classroom setting, where she says he does much better than learning on an iPad.
A full comparison of the two learning options can be found at www.tusd1.org/NextSteps2020.
Sunnyside School District Superintendent Steve Holmes told parents that Ducey's Aug. 17 return date is an "aspirational hope" and that the district will begin all classes remotely on Wednesday, Aug. 5.
"While starting school completely online is not ideal, I am confident that we are prepared for a remote learning environment given our track record of using technology as an essential instructional tool for the past 10 years," Holmes said. "Our teachers and curriculum staff have been working all summer to ensure that we can remotely deliver the same rigorous curriculum that would have been offered in person."
Sunnyside is a one-to-one district, meaning they have the capability to provide every student with a laptop that they can take home and use for schoolwork. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sunnyside only gave their Chromebooks out to students in grades 4 through 12, but they are now working to supply children in grades K through 3 with a device as well.
Much like TUSD, Sunnyside students will attend class sessions with their teachers and peers through video calls and will complete offline assignments. Sunnyside teachers will be teaching the online curriculum and ensuring that it is the "same rigorous curriculum that would have been offered in person." Individualized student support and accommodations will be provided, and social and emotional learning will be prioritized.
It is unclear whether Sunnyside will still hold extracurricular activities for students, but all updates will be posted on their district website, susd12.org.
"As a parent of two school-aged children myself, I hear your concerns and share the stress of this ever-changing situation with you," Holmes said in his message to parents. "I am confident that together we will emerge from this stronger and better."
Catalina Foothills Superintendent Mary Kamerzell said their district is "working 24/7" to create two reopening options for families: full-time in-person learning and full-time remote learning.
"While we adapt to new guidance from the State of Arizona, our priority is to design plans for school re-entry that continue our tradition of academic excellence and create a safe environment for students and staff," Kamerzell said in a message to parents. "Our primary sources for guidance are the CDC's Considerations for Schools and the American Academy of Pediatrics' COVID-19 Planning Considerations."
If the governor's start date gets pushed back again, Kamerzell said the district will be 100 percent ready to begin remote learning for all students on Aug. 17.
The district plans to launch a website with more details about their reopening plans on Monday, July 13. More information will be sent out to families in the coming weeks.
Most school districts have created a task force to develop individualized plans for how to return to learning next month.
The Amphi School District and Marana Unified School District are preparing for both in-person and remote learning options as of the Weekly's deadline.