Reopening tensions rise among Mesa board members The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Reopening tensions rise among Mesa board members

Reopening tensions rise among Mesa board members
City News

By Zach Alvira, Tribune Staff Writer

Tensions among Mesa Public Schools Governing Board members rose a bit as they discussed for the first time the state’s recently released benchmarks health officials are advising districts to follow in deciding when to resume in-person learning.

District Associate Superintendent Holly Williams led the governing board’s bi-weekly study session with a presentation outlining the benchmarks, which included certain metrics that the Arizona Department of Health Services recommended, not mandated, districts to follow before reopening schools.

Led by Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis, the board then reviewed a draft of the district’s Proposes COVID-19 Resolution, a four-page document meant to highlight Mesa’s plan for a return to in-person learning while taking into account all of Gov. Doug Ducey’s previous executive orders as well as the new benchmarks.

“We are going to talk about this document and what our best idea for a proposal at this time,” Fourlis said, adding that she had hoped for discussion and to get the board’s opinions on the resolution before a vote.

But the board never voted on the resolution as concerns were raised surrounding one of the first items involving the return to in-person learning once benchmarks are met.

One key concern involved the percentage of positive cases of COVID-19, which, as of Thursday, Aug. 13, was still hovering above 12 percent. According to the benchmarks released by state health officials, a return to in-person learning, whether it be modified or a traditional setting, the percentage of positive cases should be 7 percent or less for two weeks.

This was met with skepticism from board member Jenny Richardson.

“The governor’s direction isn’t that we have to meet those metrics, it’s their recommendation that we consider the metrics,” Richardson said. “I have skepticism around the positivity metric. I think at first, we were told nobody test unless you’re sick because we have limited tests. So then only sick people are getting tested which makes the positivity go high.

“And I think everyone has heard stories of people who never got tested and received an email saying, ‘guess what, you’re positive.’ I don’t put a lot of stock in that positivity number personally.”

Richardson argued that the board needs to determine whether the benchmarks provided by the state are the same ones Mesa should follow to reopen schools.

Longtime educator and fellow board member Marcy Hutchinson expressed a different viewpoint.

“I, too, share the concern of the positivity rate because we don’t have adequate testing in Arizona, we really don’t know,” said Hutchinson. “Schools that have opened and successfully stayed open had less than a 5 percent rate. Currently, New York state, which was the hotbed, the most infected state … is now because of residents taking it upon themselves a clear and concise direction from state government, down to a 1 percent positivity rate and their schools are going to reopen.

“Positivity rate, while we might disagree about how it has been derived, is real. This virus is real. It is dangerous,” Hutchinsom added.

Hutchinson cited new information coming out about COVID-19’s effect on children, noting several reports that have said the infection rate among children skyrocketed in July.

“We don’t know enough about this disease,” Hutchinson said. She said to reopen schools amid current positive rates “is irresponsible.”

“We have promised our community, we have promised our almost 9,000 employees that we would use health and science to determine when we would reopen,” Hutchinson added. “Families are hurting, individuals are hurting but I’m afraid if we rush, yes we will open schools but I’m afraid we won’t be able to keep them open. We have to keep them open.”

Richardson rebutted Hutchinson’s call to not hurt families by opening schools too soon then closing them again if another outbreak occurs.

“Lives and livelihood are being threatened as we stay closed as well,” Richardson said. “I feel like this virus isn’t going anywhere, we need to learn to be able to live with it in our schools. I agree that we want to reduce cases, I just don’t trust those positivity numbers.”

Along with the positivity rate, the benchmarks also suggest a two-week decline in the number of cases or new case rates below 100 per 100,000 and a two-week period in which hospital visits for illness related to the virus be below 10 percent.

Once Mesa meets those benchmarks, the district will then notify families and teachers to begin a two-week transition period to return to in-person learning, a decision that board members did not agree upon.

“Waiting two weeks to show that we can hold a benchmark and then two more weeks to get everybody ready is a real disservice to our families,” Richardson said. “If we follow that kind of timeline, we for sure won’t be in school the first quarter.

“My goal is to get our kids, in some form, back on campus and in front of a teacher as quickly as we can.”

Board President Elaine Miner said she was “uncomfortable” with how the resolution was worded, as it signals the benchmarks are no longer recommendations, but something everyone in the district will be forced to comply with.

The same resolution has been passed unanimously by the Tempe Union High School and Kyrene school district governing boards while Gilbert Public Schools, Higley Unified and Chandler Unified boards have not brought it up for discussion.

“I feel like there are so many layers that we have put to determine whether we can go back to school or not, that instead of giving our families hope, and the feeling that we are trying to work with them, it is more discouraging,” Miner said. “I could not recommend or vote on this kind of a resolution.

“To me, the resolution should be a piece of communication to our families that we hear you, we are not abandoning you and we are doing everything within our power to get your children back in school because we know that is the best place for them to be. I feel like there is such high standard out there that it’s almost like putting a carrot out there and saying, ‘whoops, not yet,’” Miner added.

Part of the resolution that drew criticism from the board also states that if metrics were not met by Sept. 22, the board would meet to re-evaluate the plan to move forward with in-person learning.

“I am not comfortable with the document because I think it is signing and adhering to some of the gray areas,” board member Kiana Sears said, adding she feels there needs to be a clearer path by the board to decide whether the state’s benchmarks will in fact be used to determine when Mesa schools open.

“Putting this in a resolution is problematic for me. I think signing this document is saying this is what we are in agreement with.”

The board received more than 430 comments from both teachers and parents, most of which centered around the desire to have kids in classrooms as soon as possible, according to the district’s Director of Communications and Marketing Helen Hollands.

A majority of those comments centered around the academic and social and emotional well-being of students. Hollands said other comments revolve heavily around families’ discontent with the remote environment, including too much screen time for younger children and the overall frustration with technology.

Some comments expressed gratitude for the district ensuring safety before opening schools, though Hollands said those were “few and far between.”

Fourlis said all public comments will be taken into account as her team and the governing board makes improvements in the district’s model for a return to in-person learning.

“I think it will be important that not only the governing board has access to this information but so does our superintendency team,” Fourlis said. “We will take a look at those as we are making improvements in our model and building the details around modified in-person that we will take this information as well.

“I want to make sure our public understands that is feedback not just to the governing board but that we will be paying attention to that inside of Mesa Public Schools as well.” ′

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