Start date, online learning issues a concern for K-12 schools




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Even with the start of the new school year pushed back to mid-August, with the possibility that it could be delayed further, some education officials are skeptical that the COVID-19 crisis will have abated enough for students to safely return to campus and want Gov. Doug Ducey to allow for more online learning to start the academic year.

Ducey on June 29 announced that the school year won’t begin until at least Aug. 17, a date which he said is “aspirational” and subject to change if the growing coronavirus outbreak hasn’t improved. Schools can offer online learning before that official start date, but students won’t be able to attend school in person until then.

Schools will also be able to offer online learning once the academic year starts in earnest, and without the normal approval they would need from the State Board of Education. But in order to qualify for the full funding they receive for each student, and to get grant money that Ducey is making available to schools to help make up for gaps in funding, schools will also have to provide in-person education five days a week. 

That isn’t sitting well with everyone, especially given skepticism that schools will truly be ready to open by the Aug. 17 target date.

“We … want to be able to offer 100% of learning options to our community without being penalized financially. We would like to receive full funding for our students who attend school virtually,” said Devin Del Palacio, a member of the Tolleson Union High School District’s governing board.

If schools opt for online-only education, they’ll take a cut in funding. Schools that operate as Arizona Online Instruction programs receive 95% of the funding for full-time online students as they do for students who attend in-person. 

Ducey is offering federally funded “enrollment stability grants” to schools that help ensure they don’t lose money due to the COVID crisis. But an executive order that Ducey issued on June 24 stipulates that schools must be physically open for at least as many days per week as they were during the last school year in order to qualify for the grants. 

Wealthier districts may be able to afford the financial hit of going online only if they feel it’s necessary, said Kristel Foster, a Tucson Unified School District board member. But districts like TUSD will feel the pinch if that happens, she said, and they should be able to go completely online with being penalized financially.

“For Tucson Unified, if we didn’t get full funding for our remote learning, it would be a $10 million hit, and we can’t afford that,” Foster said.

Under the new regulations that Ducey put into place last week, schools can offer a hybrid model in which some students attend in person and some only attend virtually, or in which students attend in-person classes on some days but only online others. Those schools will still have to offer 180 days of physical classes per year. 

“This is where educators can get very creative,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association.

Alhambra Elementary School District is considering a hybrid model, said Adam Lopez Falk, the district board’s president. But he wants school districts to have the option of online-only education.

Lopez Falk said he sees no point in setting a date that’s likely to change again, which he suspects will be the case. Schools shouldn’t reopen until there’s a “true drop in cases,” he said. And he doesn’t believe it will truly be feasible to resume in-person classes until 2021.

“I can understand wanting to not put the goalposts too far,” Lopez Falk said. “It just seems like that is truly a very aspirational date.”

Thomas, whose organization represents teachers across the state, believes that some teachers may simply refuse their assignments. Foster said she expects a high number of retirements before the school year begins, especially given that much of the state’s teaching force consists of older people who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

Ducey emphasized on June 29 that the start date for the school year can still change, depending on what happens in July and the first half of August. But he’s not keen on setting the target date too far in the future, and certainly doesn’t want to start from the assumption that schools won’t be able to reopen physically before the end of the year.

“I would think that Arizonans wouldn’t think that it’s in the pioneering spirit that we have that we would just throw in the towel and say, let’s wait until 2021. Of course options are on the table,” he said.

Arizona students finished up the spring semester of the 2019-20 school year using online and distance learning after the COVID outbreak closed their schools in March. And schools have the option of teaching students exclusively online prior to the official start date of the upcoming school year.

But once the school year starts, Ducey said in-person education is preferable.

“We want to educate our children. We believe that can be done better inside a classroom. The question is, can it be done safely?” Ducey said at his press conference.

However, he added, “We’re going to have resources for our teachers. And if we have to do distance learning again, it’s not optimal, but it’s something we certainly got much better at on the turn of a dime last time.”

Christine Thompson, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group, said there will be a big difference between the online teaching that schools provided after schools shut down in March and the online option that will be available in the fall.

“To be really blunt, that was pandemic COVID school. It wasn’t necessarily what a virtual classroom environment is going to look like,” Thompson said. “It’s not going to look like it did at the end of the last semester for some — sign in when you want, it won’t count against your grade.”

There’s no right or wrong answer for how schools should approach online education, Thompson said. It’s a decision that each community has to make. She said some schools may be hesitant to start with online instruction and may prefer to simply wait until the official start date when they can be face to face with their students.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman also wants to see schools offering students a physical place to go when classes start again for the fall. While the safest place for students to be right now is at home, Hoffman recognizes that’s not always an option for all students, said spokeswoman Morgan Dick. Children of first responders and frontline health care workers, foster children and others rely on school to be that safe place during the day, she said.

“There is a need for children to have a safe place to go during the day — however, we recognize that this is an ever evolving situation. We will continue to work with the field to determine the best way to keep students and staff safe,” Dick said.

Even those who advocate for an all-online option acknowledge that that would pose a problem for some parents who simply have nowhere else for their children to go on Aug. 17, or whether the school year ultimately begins. This problem is particularly acute for low-income parents. 

That is also a potential problem with hybrid models. Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said the Ducey administration has expressed this concern, as well. 

There are different ways that schools and districts could approach the issue. For example, Kotterman said some districts will open their computer labs where students can work on days when they’re not required to physically attend class.

Another issue that some policymakers have raised is that some parts of the state have limited online access, Kotterman said. And ASBA is still waiting to find out who exactly would qualify as “not having any place to go.”

“What we don’t want is for 70% of the school to show up one day, and that totally impairs your ability to keep maintaining safe distance,” Kotterman said.

Ducey wouldn’t commit to eliminating the financial penalty for schools that go all online. He did, however, pledge to provide schools with plenty of flexibility when it comes to helping schools cope with the pandemic.

“The objective is, yes, flexibility and resources, and we don’t want to do anything to be punitive, to punish anyone. We want to do what’s in the best interest of Arizona kids and families in terms of educating them, and part of that is flexibility,” he said at his press conference.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging education policymakers to resume in-person classes in the fall. In a statement, it said that schools are “fundamental to child and adolescent development and well-being,” and provide not only academic instruction but social and emotional skills, safety, nutrition, physical, speech and mental health therapy, and opportunities for physical activity. The group also emphasized that evidence shows that children are less likely to contract COVID-19 and are less likely to infect others with the virus.