Three Scottsdale Unified School District high schools will return to online learning Tuesday, Dec. 1, as a result of staffing shortages and general noncompliance with public health mitigation strategies.
The move, announced by the district on Monday night, will continue through the rest of the semester for Arcadia, Chaparral and Desert Mountain high schools, officials said.
“We will begin transitioning to online learning, effective Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020, for these three high schools,” Dr. Scott A. Menzel, SUSD superintendent, wrote in a letter released after 6 p.m., Nov. 30.
However, the following special education programs at the high schools will remain open to in-person learning and continue with a full-day schedule: ALC, SCA, LSC, SUCCESS, SHINE, and SCORE.
The three high schools were among five closed Monday because of staffing shortages following the Thanksgiving holiday.
Cocopah and Mountainside middle schools, which were also closed, will reopen for in-person learning on Tuesday.
“This was not an easy decision, but it is one that was made following the guidelines established by the governing board regarding determining potential return to online learning on a school-by-school basis in consultation with public health officials. It is our hope that this will also result in freeing up enough substitute teachers to cover other buildings and allow the district to continue offering in-person instruction through the end of the semester,” Dr. Menzel said.
After the five Scottsdale schools could not catch a deal on Cyber Monday because the district lacked enough teachers or substitutes to cover teacher absences with the last-minute call-outs by teachers, causing the sudden closures for the day, students enrolled in-person and Enhanced Distance Learning must make up that lost day at the end of the year.
The closures included all activities, extracurriculars, athletics, before and after school clubs, according to Dr. Menzel’s letter, noting operations for the other campuses, offices and district facilities remaining open.
“Unfortunately, we have learned over the weekend that we do not have an adequate number of teachers or substitutes to cover all teacher absences tomorrow,” Dr. Menzel wrote to families.
“We cannot ask our students to come to school for in-person instruction unless we can provide it safely and meaningfully. The lost day of instruction will likely need to be made up at the end of the school year. Please note that although tomorrow’s closures are not the result of any known COVID outbreaks in our schools, this decision is consistent with our commitment to individually evaluate each school’s ability to remain open.”
While that evening message was made to families with less than a day’s notice, Dr. Menzel sought to assure parents that further closure announcements by the district, if necessary, would be provided in a timely communication to affected families.
During a Nov. 23 SUSD governing board emergency meeting, Dr. Menzel addressed the percentage of absenteeism in schools and the availability of staff as it related to increasing COVID-19 numbers since the Maricopa County Department of Public Health considers that to help determine if schools should return to online education solely and suspend in-person instruction.
He explained how critical it was to have a sufficient number of staff to provide safe, in-person education, and noted concerns if there was not enough teachers, staff or substitutes available. Showing stats on the substitute fill rate for various schools, he noted “not every building has that same story to share,” for those with better staffing numbers.
The chart showed the cumulative numbers of subs requested and the numbers filled.
“We’re just about 71% of our sub requests are filled on every day. Last year that percent was closer to 90%. What we’re seeing is that we do have a gap between the numbers of subs that are requested and the number that we are able to fill on any given day,” Dr. Menzel said.
He pointed out, however, sub requests are down by about one-third from a year ago likely because 30% of students are enrolled in the online environment. Data included teachers and paraprofessionals tallied to reflect substitute needs from absences.
Dr. Menzel said filling many positions presented complications to ensuring coverage in the classroom, which varied by buildings.
“Our biggest challenge so far this year has been Chaparral where we have had counselors, social workers, assistant principals, even the principal filling in classrooms to cover; and you can see their overall fill rate is at 55.2%,” Dr. Menzel said.
He noted how school staff has worked together to develop solutions to cover classes such as teachers sacrificing prep periods.
“It’s been all hands on deck in order to be able to provide that coverage,” Dr. Menzel said. “So one of the things that we’ve been looking at is where is the tipping point. And you might be able to on an occasion have a teacher cover during a prep period. But, if you have to do that every day for weeks on that that is not a sustainable strategy.”
While he noted some numbers “might look troublesome,” he attributed the media coverage to contributing to problems with getting substitutes at Chaparral High because of reports on increasing COVID-19 cases that frightened prospects in the substitute pool.
SUSD board Vice President Patty Beckman said the learning community, namely the Coronado complex and Chaparral High is having a difficult time.
“The entire learning community has a fairly low sub rate. I am curious if that’s been noted and if we have any strategies to try and help out here,” Ms. Beckman said of the questionable percent-fill rates.
“District-wide, any unfilled absences is really stressful and hard on the schools. What they have to do then is meet those needs internally,” said Dr. Jed Bowman, assistant superintendent of human resources
Noting high absences on Mondays and Fridays, he added although he cannot say that there are specific strategies, efforts will be put in place to work with the learning communities to help with that deficit.
“I know our teachers are going above and beyond working right now. So how do we provide for an education for those classes in this type of environment if they can’t fill that position that day,” Ms. Beckman said, adding how teachers and principals are filling in.
She asked what the tipping point was so the district is not caught off guard. Dr. Ibi Haghighat, assistant superintendent of elementary education, and Dr. Menzel said the tipping point depends on many variables.
Dr. Menzel said if administrators are having to constantly fill in and teach classes, forgoing their normal duties, then that could be considered a tipping point.
“It is getting really tricky as the absenteeism goes up higher,” Dr. Haghighat said, noting some schools have been able to manage.
Teachers covering two classes, “indicate that we are stretched beyond capacity to fill,” teachers using prep times, educators needing substitutes during sick times for whole and half days, and more are factors that can also be “breaking points.”
Meanwhile, a campaign has been launched to hire more substitutes.
“We’re still actively pursuing hiring more subs,” Dr. Bowman said.