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Schools delay in-person instruction, ramp up ‘learning centers’ for at-risk students

This week, school districts across Arizona opened their campuses to students in need of a reliable environment to engage in their remote learning, as Gov. Doug Ducey required them to do in a July 23 executive order.

In Pima County, many districts are trying to limit the number of students to those who absolutely need the service, in order to protect their communities from the spread of COVID-19.

All Pima County districts are following the governor's guidelines for when it is safe to reopen schools for traditional in-person instruction. On Aug. 6, the Arizona Department of Health Services announced its public health benchmarks for school districts to use when determining if it is safe to reopen. The benchmarks consist of three metrics: the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the region, the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests and the percentage of hospital visits for COVID-like symptoms.

The department recommends schools stick to remote learning until their county's case numbers drop below 100 per 100,000 people for two consecutive weeks, their positive testing rate is 7 percent or lower, and hospital visits with COVID-like illnesses drop below 10 percent for two consecutive weeks.

The state has also said county health departments should work with local school districts to determine if it's safe to reopen for in-person instruction. On Tuesday, July 28, the Pima County Health Department advised all districts that based on then-current public health data, it was not safe for schools to reopen their campuses to all students. County officials said they didn't think schools would be able to safely reopen at least until Labor Day and perhaps as late as sometime in October.

While the criteria have not been met, the number of new cases peaked in mid-July and began to decline after the Pima County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance requiring people to wear masks in public when maintaining physical distance isn't possible. The number of confirmed cases dropped from a high of 2,368 new cases in the week ending July 4 to 1,408 in the week ending Aug. 1, according to a Pima County Health Department report.

However, Ducey has required districts to open their campuses as "learning centers" for students who may have special needs, lack access to learning equipment or have parents that are required to work away from home during the day.

Tucson Unified

The Tucson Unified School District began teaching students online last Monday, Aug. 10. During their board meeting on Aug. 11, the TUSD governing board voted to delay the start of in-person instruction to Oct. 9, at the earliest.

To accommodate Ducey's order that schools reopen for any student who needs support during the school day, TUSD officials have determined that they will prioritize on-site learning centers for students that fall into four specific categories: those in special education programs, those in foster care, those experiencing homlessness and those who are refugees.

While they won't turn any student away from the on-campus learning centers, the district is hoping to significantly limit the amount of students who come in.

"Smaller populations of students on campus, at this time, is going to allow for a more effective cohorting of students, meaning smaller groups of students that will be together longer periods of time," said TUSD Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo at the board meeting. "This is really going to help if there's going to be any contract tracing for case positive situations that may hit us later on. For a contact tracer to deal with a smaller group of students is going to make that work a lot easier."

Sunnyside Unified

The Sunnyside Unified School District began its 2020-21 school year on Wednesday, Aug. 5, remotely and does not have an identified start date for in-person learning at this time.

Their on-site learning centers are focused on students who need internet access, younger students who are struggling to access the curriculum, students whose IEPs need to be implemented at a school site, students in Foster Care, students facing unique living and housing challenges, English Language Learners, and students who are pre-registered in the District Tuition Based Childcare Program.

According to Public Information Director Marisela Felix, all of Sunnyside's schools will be open as in-person learning centers, but the amount of students allowed on each campus will depend on the staff they each have available. They intend to meet a ratio of nine students to every one adult.

Sunnyside is also exploring potential partnerships with KIDCO, Boys and Girls Club, YMCA and other community organizations that can provide additional support to district families. More details are expected in upcoming weeks.

Sunnyside officials are watching Pima County health metrics closely to determine when it is safe to bring students back to campus.

A large number of SUSD students are in need of meals usually provided by the district. To address this, free lunches will be available to students at their designated schools Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Families also have the option to pick up meals through Sunnyside's mobile meal service Monday through Friday between 11 a.m. and noon at 10 different bus stop locations. More details can be found at www.susd12.org/responsible-reopening.

This mobile service is provided to Sunnyside students only, and each child will need to present their matric number to receive a meal.

Amphitheater

Amphitheater Public Schools administrators told its district families that these on-site learning centers are similar to a supervised study hall. According to their website, it is intended to serve students who need a "quiet, safe environment to independently engage in their remote learning during the school day" and is not the same as traditional teacher-led classroom learning.

On-site learning is limited to students and families who have a critical need for this type of service. The district is prioritizing students based on need, which is assessed by an application families are required to complete. Applications can be accessed at www.amphi.com/Domain/4874.

Amphi spokesperson Michelle Valenzuela said the district had support staff assigned at all district schools, but as of Friday, Aug. 14, registration for in-person instruction totaled 95 students across 21 schools, with some schools seeing zero students register.

"Students who are participating will spend the day doing their classwork in our computer labs and will work in other locations at our schools, with breaks for lunch and outdoor time," Valenzuela said.

Parents who want to do on-campus supervision next week need to register before

Friday morning at 10 a.m. Applications are available at amphi.com and on all school websites. The City of Tucson's KIDCO program is providing services at Nash Elementary, Keeling Elementary and Prince Elementary. Preschool is also available for a fee at Innovation Academy, Painted Sky Elementary and Canyon Del Oro High School and reservations are limited. Interested families should contact those schools for more information.

Students learning at home can still access school meals through Amphi's curbside Grab & Go meal service. Breakfast and lunch to-go meals can be picked up between 10:30 a.m. and noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Amphitheater High, Amphitheater Middle, Canyon Del Oro High, Coronado K-8, Donaldson Elementary, Holaway Elementary, Keeling Elementary, La Cima Middle, Mesa Verde Elementary, Nash Elementary, Painted Sky Elementary, Rio Vista Elementary and Walker Elementary.

Meal prices will vary based on students' free and reduced eligibility status. For more information, visit family.titank12.com.

Marana Unified

In a letter to district parents, Marana Unified School District Superintendent Dan Streeter said the district has not yet identified a start date for in-person learning. But he said the district is working with county health officials and other school superintendents to "identify appropriate local benchmarks and indicators with a goal of returning us to school safely as soon as possible."

Streeter said that although Pima County has not met the state's safety benchmarks yet, the metrics are currently trending downward in the right direction.

MUSD is trying to limit the amount of students that come to schools for in-person learning and is asking families who have the resources to adequately support their students' learning at home to refrain from using this service. They are requesting all families fill out an application on their website if they want their child to participate.

According to MUSD Public Relations Director Tamara Crawley, all MUSD schools with learning centers have implemented "advance scheduling procedures" to avoid overcrowding and ensure that the number of students in the on-campus centers does not hinder physical distancing measures.

If a school reaches capacity, some students may need to be relocated to another school site.

For more details on MUSD's learning centers and where to sign up, visit www.maranausd.org/Page/4062.

More by Kathleen B. Kunz

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