After extensive discussion, the Flagstaff Unified School District Governing Board is now considering a phased return to in-person instruction.
The board spent over six hours Tuesday evening — until after midnight — discussing and hearing comments on the district’s proposed COVID-19 return-to-school plan, but did not make a decision on whether to continue remote learning, transition to hybrid learning or begin allowing students back onto school campuses on Oct. 11, the start of the second quarter. This date was selected by the board in July as the earliest possible return to in-person lessons after beginning the school year online in August.
Board members expressed concerns about not only students and staff returning to school while Flagstaff is experiencing increased COVID-19 cases, but also what will occur if the district is unable to meet and maintain the standards for minimal community transmission sometime soon.
Hesitant to approve a specific return-to-school option, the board expressed a desire to consider a new phased return that could be based on grade level. FUSD administrators will present the new phased reopening plan for consideration in a meeting to take place Oct. 6.
Board member Carole Gilmore suggested a plan where schools would reopen first to preschool through first-grade students, but the motion was not approved. The group agreed, though, that the district’s proposed hybrid options — with students attending class both in-person and online during a single school week — are too disruptive to students and teachers alike and would need improvement.
“I do feel it’s incumbent for the members of the board to make timely decisions, especially during this pandemic, about whether to be in school or to be online,” Gilmore said. “It’s time for us … to set our priorities for returning to school when it is safe by doing so with a staggered model.”
According to Coconino County Health and Human Services’ latest schools update, FUSD no longer meets the benchmark for having less than 100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks. The case incidence within FUSD-area ZIP codes jumped from 51.2 the week ending Sept. 5 to 114.5 the week ending Sept. 12, placing it in the category for substantial community spread for this benchmark.
“While we wish it would always move in one direction -- always the data getting better and better -- and we continue to reopen things, as we know in this pandemic, sometimes things are kind of going to ebb and flow and spike up and down a little bit, and we’re experiencing that right now,” said Superintendent Michael Penca, who suggested that in-person instruction would not be able to resume until Oct. 22 at the earliest, considering the district’s current schedule and to allow time to meet the two-week requirement for this benchmark.
At the beginning of the meeting, Board President Anne Dunno reported the board had received 243 public comments on the reopening plan, with about a quarter of them related to athletics. On Friday, the district decided to halt school sports as a result of meeting the substantial community spread threshold. The decision was protested by numerous parents, student-athletes and community members at Flagstaff City Hall on Monday.
At the end of the meeting, however, the board voted to resume athletics starting with non-contact sports this week and contact sports beginning next week.
About 90 minutes of the meeting was allocated to reading through some of the comments, which were submitted by FUSD families, teachers, students and other Flagstaff community members, many of whom advocated for the resumption of in-person classes and athletic events in order to improve students’ mental health, social development, academic performance and future opportunities, among other factors.
Various individuals favoring the continuation of online learning similarly submitted comments on the plan.
The virtual meeting also drew a large number of online participants. At its height, more than 500 viewers tuned into the livestream of the meeting on the FUSD Facebook page and submitted more than 2,500 real-time comments on the video.
According to a survey sent to FUSD families last week, 50% of families said they preferred transitioning to hybrid learning when community spread is moderate, but 36% percent said they did not prefer this method, based on a five-point scale. When FUSD staff were asked the same question, nearly 63% said they did not prefer this method.
As an alternative, when asked about continuing with full remote learning until there is minimum community spread, families were split almost evenly, and 69% of staff said they would strongly prefer this option.
In a separate survey of certified and licensed staff conducted by the Flagstaff Education Association, if a hybrid option were to begin at the start of the second quarter, 20% said they would consider other employment options to avoid being on campus, while an additional 10% said they would be unable or unwilling to work in their school building.
Penca said the district would prefer students be able to return to school physically, but because of the COVID-19 situation, administrators are now looking for the “least worst model.” He said he knows the upcoming decision will not please everyone and noted that some families have already pulled their students from the district because of the lack of an in-person option.
The board will meet Wednesday to address the rest of the agenda items that were not able to be completed during this week’s meeting. The Oct. 6 meeting will be focused on the reopening plan.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.