5-day in-class learning to begin in Mesa schools The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

5-day in-class learning to begin in Mesa schools

5-day in-class learning to begin in Mesa schools
Mesa
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BY PAUL MARYNIAK
Tribune Executive Editor

After months of hand-wringing, pleading and tension, Mesa Public Schools is scheduled to welcome thousands of students tomorrow, Oct. 12, for five-day learning in classrooms.

For the past two weeks, students have been broken into groups that were on campuses two days a week in a rotating format that significantly reduced their number in buildings at any given time.

But the district announced last Thursday that five-day learning with mandatory masks and other safety protocols could begin after the county Public Health Department’s weekly updated benchmarks showed the overall level of COVID-19 spread within district boundaries was moderate.

While hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms were at 2 percent and positive new test results were 3.72 percent – indications of minimal virus spread – the third metric involving cases per 100,000 remained moderate for virus spread at 49. Ten or fewer cases per 100,000 represents minimal spread.

MPS also joined other districts – including Chandler Unified and Gilbert Public Schools – in creating a daily dashboard showing the number of new COVID-19 cases involving students or staff that have been reported to the district.

The dashboard – at mpsaz.org/beprepared/reopen/dashboard – showed a total 26 cases comprising 19 students and six adults have been reported.

The district, like the others, is not breaking down the student-adult ratios for individual schools for privacy reasons.

The dashboard shows: five cases in elementary schools, two in junior highs, 19 in high schools and two in district offices. Every high school but Dobson reported at least two cases, though high schools have significantly larger student populations.

The infected individuals had to quarantine and their school communities were notified.

MPS administrators and teachers have gone to great lengths to contain virus spread – sometimes reaching into their own pockets to pay for additional protections beyond those undertaken by the district.

School board member Marcie Hutchinson said one principal’s husband bought PVC pipes to create an outside stand for balls, jump ropes and other hand-held recreation equipment so they could be more effectively sprayed with disinfectant after each playground session ends.

Teachers who had spent hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy books and artwork for their classrooms bought plastic sheeting to protect them from damage caused by nightly disinfectant spraying.

“That’s what teachers do: they figure out what they need to keep the learning engaged while still trying to deal with CDC regulations,” said Hutchinson, a former teacher herself.

Two-thirds of all families in the district have opted to send their children back to campuses, with the rest deciding to continue at-home learning through December.

Despite months of work to create safe environments in schools and among students, concerns remain.

They range from teacher workloads to the “learning gap” created by the quick pivot in the spring to less-than-adequate online programs to whether ventilation will be adequate in many classrooms.

Adequate ventilation in buildings that have no windows or windows that can’t be opened and other schools with aging HVAC systems have become major concerns now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has acknowledged that in some cases, infection is possible even if people remain 6 feet apart because droplets carrying the disease can hang in the air.

Though the CDC said it is not altering its recommendations as a result of “limited, uncommon circumstances where people with COVID-19 infected others who were more than 6 feet away or shortly after the COVID-19-positive person left an area,” it stated:

“In these instances, transmission occurred in poorly ventilated and enclosed spaces that often involved activities that caused heavier breathing, like singing or exercise. Such environments and activities may contribute to the buildup of virus-carrying particles.”

MPS had hoped to follow in the steps of Kyrene School District, which purchased high-performance HEPA filtering units for every classroom in its 25 schools that will clean the air every 35 minutes and capture just over 99 percent of all air particles.

Without any money of its own to buy them, the district asked City of Mesa officials if they could use some of their federal pandemic-relief money to buy them, but the city said it couldn’t afford the expense.

Ventilation also becomes more significant because, as Hutchinson noted,  “We’re not going to be able
to maintain social distancing in some of the buildings.”

Mesa administrators told the Governing Board Sept. 22 that based on commitments parents have made for the rest of the semester, 29 schools will see 70 to 90 percent of their students returning, 18 will see 60 to 69 percent, 27 will see 50-59 percent and six will see 37 to 49 percent.

The forecast of somewhat cooler weather may help, Hutchinson said, since school bus windows can be opened and teachers and principals can conduct some classes or lunchbreaks outside.

Still, Hutchinson said she has received phone calls and emails from some parents and even students who are concerned about moving from the two-day truncated model to a full five-day in-class format.

As for teachers, safety and workload concerns loom large.

Unless they qualify for Americans With Disabilities Act protection, teachers either must report for work or resign. Having a concern about getting infected from close contact with colleagues and students is no excuse.

Officials conceded that some MPS schools do not have enough substitutes. District officials also agreed with teachers who complain they are too stretched by being forced to conduct their lessons in class and online at the same time.

Board members expressed a concern at the Sept. 22 meeting about elementary teachers having no breaks – even for lunch or to go to the bathroom.

Hutchinson said principals for schools where that was a problem have since devised schedules and other solutions so those teachers can get bathroom breaks and a few minutes of alone time for lunch.

As for those without enough substitute teachers to call on, Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson told the board it would soon get a request to raise substitute pay to attract more subs.

Simultaneously teaching in-class and online aas well as having time to prepare lessons remain problems.

“I constantly feel like I’m hanging on by a thread and the day is fast approaching when a lot of people will be too overworked and run down to continue,” one teacher told the board last month.

“I cannot continue to be all things to all students in all learning models,” she said. “I’m exhausted and the job I’m currently doing is not sustainable.”

Thompson conceded the “dual modality” of teaching online and in class simultaneously “is a big concern,” telling the board it also impacts the quality of education students receive.

Noting many teachers, especially in high schools, have complex class schedules, he said: “This is a new model and we need to provide more training on how to be successful in this model and to provide support for them to be successful in this model.” ′

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