Litchfield Elementary School District students whose families signed up for in-person learning at the beginning of the school year will return to the classroom five days a week beginning Monday, Oct. 26.
LESD’s Governing Board voted 4-1 to approve a recommendation by Superintendent Jodi Gunning to transition students from hybrid learning to in-person. Board President Danielle Clymer and members Kimberly Moran, Dr. Tawnya Pfitzer and Alayne Weathersby voted in favor; member Melissa Zuidema voted against.
To view the meeting, visit youtube.com/user/LESD79
Preschool through fifth grades will begin five-day in-class instruction Monday, Oct. 26. Sixth through eighth grades will begin the following Monday.
LESD operates 11 elementary and five middle schools serving about 12,000 students in Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear and Litchfield Park.
Ms. Gunning recommended the transition, saying that in-class instruction is widely recognized as academically and emotionally best for children.
“We know that this is the best place for our children to be and we want to be able to provide that opportunity to the families who selected that option,” she said. “We are still analyzing and probably still don’t know the total impact that the closures, and even having a hybrid option, have had on the social, emotional and mental health of our students. It’s so much easier to monitor when you have them in your classroom on a daily basis.”
Other factors leading to the recommendation included:
• A decline in first- through fifth-grade performance.
“They’re not starting the year anywhere near that we have started in previous years, so we’re already seeing the gaps and anticipating the hard work our teachers are going to definitely have to do to close those gaps,” Ms. Gunning said.
• The difficulty in meeting Arizona Department of Public Health benchmark data on the number of infections per 100,000 people.
To move into the green, minimal community spread category, the number of infections must be below 10 cases per 100,000. The number of cases per 100,000 in the district have fluctuated between 37.08 on Sept. 3 to 25.43 on Sept. 24, before increasing to 40.26 on Oct. 7.
New numbers will be released by the state Thursday, Oct. 15. Ms. Gunning said no one is sure when any area in the state will meet that benchmark. “It may not be able to be met until a vaccine is actually in place,” she said.
• Upgraded safety measures.
Ms. Gunning said the district is working with HealthyVerify, an organization that works with agencies and busineses to ensure best safety protocols and practices are in place. “They have reviewed all of our documents and all of our safety protocols,” she said, adding the district expects to achieve HealthyVerify certification after a walk-through scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 22.
• Financial impacts.
Ms. Gunning said the district receives 100% funding when students are on campus and 95% funding when working online, which amounts to about $14,000 per day. Educational Stability Grant funds covered those losses for the first 40 days of the school year, which began Aug. 5.
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Ms. Gunning said 61%, or 6,574, students are signed up for in-person learning, which is up from 46% of students at the beginning of the school year. Another 1,398 are enrolled in the hybrid model, which is down from about 2,700 from the beginning of the year, and 2,768 are enrolled in the online-only Digital Learning Academy.
Children of families that selected the hybrid and online learning options will not be required to return to the classroom.
Ms. Gunning said 82% of the district’s teachers are on board with returning to the classroom full-time.
As of Nov. 2, schools will have between 300 and 760 students on campus, she said.
After Ms. Gunning’s presentation, board members discussed their options and concerns for about an hour before voting.
“Fundamentally, what’s best for kids is to be in school. I think, frankly, that’s unequivocal. Protecting teachers, frankly, if we don’t have enough kids, we’re protecting teachers’ jobs by allowing our district to have kids in the district,” Dr. Pfitzer said. “If we’re waiting for this virus to completely go away, then we should not even plan on going to school at all this year ... I think it’s time to go back.”
While Ms. Moran said that according to the numbers Ms. Gunning provided, schools will be at roughly 25% capacity, Ms. Zuidema said that number will vary by classroom.
“We have classrooms that have over 30 kids in it in middle school and they said they cannot in any way socially distance with 30 kids in the classroom,” she said. “I have heard from staff members and people that kids are not necessarily wearing their masks like they’re supposed to.”
Ms. Zuidema, who cast the lone dissenting vote, also said she is concerned the number of infections has been on the rise in recent weeks.
“I think we have to accept the notion that any parent that is sending their child back to the full five days is aware that social distancing will not be met.”
Ms. Clymer attributed the increase in families choosing in-person learning to their frustration over hybrid learning, which has been difficult for both the district and families to navigate.
“There are hybrid classes that are collapsing” when the number of students in a class falls too low, she said.
In some cases, parents who want their children to stay in the hybrid model may have to move their children to another school, or move their student into in-person learning to stay at their original school, she said.
“That’s not an easy choice for a third-grader or the parents of a third-grader.”
In response to Ms. Zuidema’s concerns over what will happen if cases continue to rise in the coming months, Ms. Gunning said she would come back to the board for a decision on whether to continue with in-person instruction.
“As you guys know, I have no problem coming back to you and telling you when I think that something’s unsafe and we need to make a change,” she said. “There could potentially be a closure at one campus of a campus completely shutting down, or a grade level shutting down at a campus or a classroom shutting down at a campus and the rest of the district is still operating find and moving ahead.”
Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or 760-963-1697.