Children, parents rip MPS’ reopening plan The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Children, parents rip MPS’ reopening plan

Children, parents rip MPS’ reopening plan
Mesa
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BY PAUL MARYNIAK
Tribune Executive Editor

Children are scheduled to return to Mesa Public Schools classrooms in a truncated fashion tomorrow and judging by last Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting, not many people are happy with that.

In the board’s first in-person meeting in six months, 21 parents – some with tears of rage and others with tears of frustration – and children lambasted the district for not opening campuses five days a week.

The five teachers who addressed the board spoke against opening campuses at all, contending that it was not only unsafe but also created an impossible work schedule as they tried teaching kids online and in person simultaneously.

Even board members squabbled as Marcie Hutchinson argued it was too early to reopen and her colleagues fired back that if the district waits for perfect COVID-19 metrics, classrooms will be steeped in dust.

Students have been divided into two alphabetically arranged groups, with the A group on campuses Mondays and Thursdays and the B group on Tuesdays and Fridays. The rest of the time, they’ll do what they’ve been doing since mid-March – learning online at home.

The decision to partially reopen schools is based on three benchmarks for COVID-19 transmission the county Public Health Department advises districts to follow in their reopening decisions.

The voluntary guidelines indicated MPS overall is in the “yellow” zone, indicating moderate spread and signaling hybrid learning is safe.

But Hutchinson said some of the ZIP codes where students live were still in the red, indicating substantial virus spread.

That prompted board member Jenny Richardson to note that MPS students come from 100 different ZIP codes and teachers from 200. “So, using just ZIP codes to determine whether or not we can open safely is short-sighted,” she said.

Board President Elaine Miner expressed some exasperation, noting many of the concerns and questions Hutchinson was raising have consumed hours of discussion in recent meetings.

Conscious of the 26 children, parents and teachers who had signed up to address the board, Miner said, “We have  spent a lot of time asking very specific questions on the protocols, et cetera, safety measures.”

Hutchinson replied, “I really do have grave concerns despite the many, many, many efforts of our superintendency as well as our employees, but there certainly is reason to be concerned and I would like to have some of those issues still addressed.”

Steve Peterson jumped in, stating, “Each of us has our own perspective on this issue and the risk that we face from not having our kids in school versus trying to keep them safe in this ongoing situation. As I have said many times, there is no safe choice. If you keep them closed, we are putting kids at risk; if we open it up, yes there is that potential.”

“I believe a lot of your questions now are starting to get into the execution portion, which is not where we as a board dwell,” Peterson told Hutchinson. “You’re certainly welcome to ask those and pursue those but they should not or could not hinder our ability with moving forward on Sept. 14.”

Hutchinson then moved into another area of concern, suggesting the administration had misled the board several weeks ago with assurances that there would be a separate group of teachers for online learning.

She said teachers now will be forced to teach kids in person and online at the same time, asserting this created an impossible situation for teachers.

Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis agreed that she originally thought some teachers would be assigned to online learning while others to in-classroom formats.

But, she added, “We’ve learned.”

“Teachers have built relationships…I think we were willing to change what are our commitments are here because we don’t want to lose that relationship with our students. Through our planning and listening to specifically our high school and junior high principals who say ‘adhere to the model the best that we can but if teachers are offering to make a change, we are not going to get in the way of that.’”

Miner added that some teachers “are scrambling,” but added, “If we were to wait until all things were perfect and until everything was in place, we would not go back to school for quite some time.

“And we do have families who are leaving our district – families that have been committed and loyal to this district for a very long time,” Miner continued. “And at the beginning when we started talking about this, we talked about choice and flexibility. Right now people who are in a remote environment have a choice, but the people who want to go back do not.”

The applause from the live audience – limited to only 20 people while others waited outside to have their say – was followed by a cascade of criticism that began with several young children imploring the district to open classrooms five days a week.

That barrage had been signaled earlier in an unrelated item as the board adopted a resolution calling for the observance of Constitution Week in celebration of the Sept. 17 anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.

Parent Brittny Smith invoked Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as she told the board:

“As a parent navigating through this unprecedented learning environment with my children, I try my best to put on a smile and I want to cry, to persevere when I really want to quit. I’m begging you to consider opening our schools to the vast majority of parents and teachers who are willing and ready to return in person full-time.

“But I’m also scared of what you will decide to do. I feel like we are being denied our liberty, to choose how our children are educated or if they are educated at all in the way that best truly serves them.”

The relentless barrage of criticism included youngsters who spoke of the hardship they have endured in learning on a digital screen.

“My name is Emma and I’m 10 years old,” the lead-off speaker said. “I don’t agree with online school because I feel like I’m teaching myself a lot of time…It’s really hard. I get frustrated and I feel like I’m not smart, sad and in a dark hole.”

A Fremont Junior High seventh grader followed, stating, “I remember how excited I was to start junior high. I was so excited about starting a new school and learning new things, making new friends, but that has been taken away from me. Being home all day long has been harder than I could imagine. Staring at a computer screen all day has not been good for me and it made me less and less excited about school.

“I used to be so excited when I woke up in the morning and went off to school and I would love all the activities and learning new things,” she continued. “But now I don’t want to look forward to it all. And in fact, sometimes I dread it.”

Some parents were less charitable than that.

Christine Leffler said the hybrid model “is creating more chaos in my life than just opening for five days right off.”

Ronda Doolan delivered a blistering accusation as she cited more than a 30-year history with the district.

“I don’t trust you,” she told the board. “Not one thing that we were told in the beginning, not one thing, has come to pass.

”So, I have pulled my youngest child. I have two wrestling state champions in Mountain View, I raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the program and I’m walking away,” Doolan said. Underscoring the psychological impact that months of closures have had on students, she added:

“These children are dying. They are committing suicide. They have suicidal thoughts. They are saddened. They are depressed….I have to say that I don’t trust you and after 30 years in Mesa Public Schools – and by the way, my husband and I both went to Mesa Public Schools – I’m walking away and I won’t be back.”

Rachel Bostock, a mother of four MPS students, said she worried about teachers and parents being pitted against each other, saying, “We love our teachers.”

Bostock also warned about parents pulling their kids out of Mesa schools.

“When you lose the parents here and the ones you’ve lost – they’re the ones we need in the district,” she said. “They’re the ones that are showing out. They’re the ones whose kids show up. They donate money, they donate time and you’re losing them. We are all losing each other and it’s not okay.”

Crystal Randall told the board, “I understand fear. I’m in the healthcare field in a hospital. What would happen if the medical providers said ‘I am too scared to treat you’ and you died? I feel that the education system has said ‘I am too scared to teach so I will let the students’ education die.”

Some parents could barely make their statements, their voices choking as they cried – as Kim Rowley did as she said that online learning “is no longer defined as education – this is pure torture.”

Others were indignant.

“So if my daughter can go get her hair cut,  play club soccer, get her nails done, pump your own gas, go to the dentist, go to the doctor, have date night with her stepfather at the movies – why can’t she be in school?” asked Ashley Thompson.

Abby Burkholder, a former biology teacher of 10 years in Pennsylvania, told the board her daughters has had only 10 minutes of one-on-one contact with her teacher in five weeks.

Another mom described herself as “beyond infuriated,” telling the board that she looked at her family has having a “perfect” home situation in the sense that she is a stay-at-home mom.

And yet, she said: “My once-thriving children are struggling. Seeing my children in front of a screen every day, I’m literally watching them just deteriorate emotionally, mentally. …My children need their life back. They need normalcy. They need interaction and face-to-face learning and they need it now. We refuse to live in fear of a virus.”

At the end of the parade of speakers, Miner asked Fourlis if she had any comment.

The superintendent replied:

“We are spending a lot of time arguing. We’re spending a lot of time dividing this community. We need to get together to support our kids, to build a continuity of learning and it’s not going to happen arguing and finger-pointing or any other kind of divisiveness.

“So, we have to follow our mitigation strategies and we have to be the model for that to keep our kids in school. So when we get them in school let’s work to keep them in school. We need your help to do this.” ′

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