Many Arizona schools are vowing to remain open for in-person learning the first week after winter break, even as a COVID-19 surge has pushed districts to make emergency staffing plans and, in some cases, reinstitute mask requirements.
“Our planning DOES NOT include returning the entire district to remote or hybrid learning,” wrote Madison school Superintendent Kenneth R. Baca in a Jan. 3 email to parents. “However, it does mean that we will have to plan for classrooms that are not covered, bus routes that may be delayed or canceled, and food services that may have challenges serving meals — all due to staff illness.”
Arizona started the year with a surge in COVID-19 cases: The state had a 22% test positivity rate, a significant jump from the 13% rate the week before, a sign of the high transmissibility of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. At the start of the year, some hospitals were operating near or over capacity.
For schools, particularly those without mask mandates, where students are too young to be vaccinated or where community vaccination rates are low, that means dealing with sick staff, classroom quarantines and a bevy of absences.
Some districts around the country, including Atlanta, Detroit and Newark, New Jersey, have opted to start their school year remotely amid high community transmission rates of COVID-19.
Data aggregator Burbio found 4,561 schools had some sort of disruption, meaning one or more days without in-person learning, in the first week back, more than in all of December combined.
In Arizona, pressure from political leaders, parents and a difficult and unequal remote learning transition back when the pandemic began have made schools double down on efforts to remain in-person. On Tuesday, Gov. Doug Ducey announced a funding program to support families whose schools shut down for even one day with up to $7,000 in child care, transportation, online tutoring needs or school tuition.
An additional complicating factor is that schools will only receive funding for remote learning time if they have applied for their program to be recognized as one of two remote learning models authorized by education officials.
The only school closure in Arizona on Burbio’s list is the Kayenta Unified School District on the Navajo Nation, which announced nearly a month ago that it would go virtual for the first three days after winter break.
However, initial figures from some school districts show higher-than-usual school absences.
Officials with the Cartwright Elementary School District, which has 21 K-8 schools with nearly 15,000 children in metro Phoenix, said they recorded 3,051 students absent Monday, 2,319 on Tuesday and 2,256 on Wednesday.
That compared with about 1,600 absences on both the first day of fall and the last day of school in December, said Veronica Sanchez, the district’s director of public relations. She said teacher absences were also up but didn’t have exact figures.
In the Kyrene School District, so far this week, school officials said the student absence rate was 10%-12% every day, with the absences related to COVID-19 cases or quarantines at 3%-4% districtwide. Those numbers are slightly elevated compared with December, a spokesperson said, when the daily absence rate was 7%-10% and the number related to COVID-19 was at 2%.
What Arizona schools are doing
Instead, Arizona school leaders say they are planning to keep doors open by strongly recommending masks if they are not already required, planning emergency staffing measures, and asking for patience from families amid possible disruptions to transportation or school meals.
Still, Arizona schools have a wide range of mitigation measures in place, even as public health officials continue to recommend universal masking for all students and staff.
The Kyrene School District, which had planned to make wearing face masks optional in January, said it would continue to require masks to mitigate the effects of the surge. Glendale Union High School District told families on Jan. 3 that it would require students and staff to wear masks.
Others have strongly encouraged masks but stopped short of requiring universal mask wearing, including Scottsdale Unified and Chandler Unified school districts. Scottsdale has implemented a mask requirement for school staff and temporarily limited visitors and volunteers on campuses, but masks remain optional for students. A spokesperson for the Chandler district said leadership will review case rates daily and could implement mask-wearing if a certain case threshold is reached.
What about school staffing?
Another big question is whether schools will have enough staff, despite shortened quarantine recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At Madison, leadership met Monday to plan for the possibility that district office staff, part-time staff and even parent volunteers may need to step in to substitute classes or do other school duties. Phoenix Elementary School District is considering combining classes or having administrators take over classes.
So far, schools are seeing some absences, but it’s not yet clear in the first few days how broad they are for either teachers or staff, say districts.
Peoria Unified School District saw a slightly higher than average number of staff absences, but it was able to fill 70% of those openings, slightly lower than the usual district average of 75%-80%.
Community advocates, teachers and parents say that the COVID-19 surge and the differing mitigation measures across districts have created a battle between safety and the ability to provide a consistent learning environment after nearly two years of pandemic-induced disruption.
“We are seeing a lot of the consequences of unfinished learning being a really big challenge,” said Phoenix Union High School District board member and All in Education executive director Stephanie Parra.
The Phoenix Union board has tried to make remote learning the last option and invest in vaccination and testing infrastructure, she said.
Brenda Beacham, the parent of a third grade student at Whittier Elementary in the Phoenix Elementary district, planned to continue bringing her child in for in-person learning and was comfortable with the school’s safety precautions, which include face masks.
“She likes to interact with the other kids,” she said.
Teachers are exhausted, apprehensive
Some teachers, worn out from the pressures of pandemic teaching, substituting classes and in some cases caring for themselves or others who have the virus, say they want more mitigation measures.
Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, said educators are living in fear of being exposed to the virus, going without lunch or prep periods to cover classes, and districts relying heavily on substitutes and retired teachers.
“We are living in a very unstable, day-by-day world,” she said. “That stability is needed for kids.”
Stormy Haffey, who teaches seventh grade English at Andersen Junior High School in the Chandler district, said she is “apprehensive” about virus-related disruption and the risk of in-person teaching in the next few weeks.
She also has two children who attend elementary and middle schools in the district.
If their schools go remote but hers doesn’t, Haffey said, she’d have to scramble to find child care. Instead, she wants her district to adopt universal masking, which she says would be one step toward helping educators who are already under a lot of pressure to create normalcy and accelerate learning.
“The word that we (teachers) use repeatedly is ‘exhausted’ from everything,” she said. “We are doing our best to try to work through what we are given.”
Originally published in AZ Central. The Associated Press contributed to this article.