Remote learning is not becoming any easier after nearly a year, some Flagstaff families say, leading them to band together to search for a way to get local schools to reopen as soon as the state says it is safe to do so.
The now 494-person Facebook group called “Flagstaff In Person Education is Essential” was formed as parents supportive of a return to in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic found each other and began sharing their children’s stories. The group includes parents from Flagstaff Unified School District and other local schools, such as public charters Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy, Northland Preparatory Academy and Basis Flagstaff.
Brielle Kennington pulled her three children — in sixth, fourth and first grades — from FUSD schools in October in favor of a local micro school when, in spite of resources including custom-built desks, blue light blocking glasses, fidget toys and her constant management of their schedules, remote learning remained a challenge for her kids.
“They were really struggling emotionally, behaviorally, academically. They just didn’t seem like themselves,” Kennington said. “The days were really, really long. They found themselves struggling with headaches, even after we got them blue light glasses, and being very combative and having daily meltdowns: crying, emotional, not wanting to go to school.”
She wrote a letter to the editor in September compiling her story with those of other parents she knew, and in response she received messages from other similarly minded parents who are now all part of the private Facebook group.
“We felt like we were being attacked if we ever talked about it and nobody was talking about it. It felt like nobody had the same opinions as us, so it was nice to have a place where we could help each other find solutions, give each other strategies and also just share some of the heartbreaking experiences our children have been having,” Kennington said.
After months of submitting comments to school boards without success, these parents are now looking to outside assistance and have hired a lawyer to help them point out possible constitutional issues of the inconsistencies in learning styles across the state.
On Dec. 31, Elliot Alford, managing attorney at Alford Law in Flagstaff, submitted a letter on behalf of this group to FUSD Superintendent Michael Penca, former FUSD Board President Anne Dunno, Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman that described the lack of in-person learning as unfair and illegal, and asked for a detailed explanation from FUSD as to why it had not yet reopened.
The letter cited the harm being done to students and their parents; Arizona Department of Health Services’ guidelines, which previously cleared Coconino County for hybrid learning; state requirements that schools be open at least six months each year; and Brown v. Board of Education, where the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the precedent of “separate but equal” segregated schools.
Alford said the goal is to either have FUSD agree to follow the state benchmarks for reopening -- instead of its own more stringent requirements for local COVID-19 case counts -- or have the state make its guidelines for reopening schools mandatory among all districts.
“Whereas students in Phoenix are going to school normally, students in Flagstaff are forced to stay home,” Alford told the Arizona Daily Sun. “This is discrimination based on location, which is similar to Brown v. Board of Education, where you have education based on race. … When states set rules allowing schools to reopen, they really shouldn’t allow schools to pick and choose whether or not to reopen.”
He said his letter was intended as an “informal negotiation”; the parent group would consider a lawsuit only if there is no longer communication between groups.
Although the state has yet to address the letter, FUSD responded last week with its own letter from law firm Udall Shumway that stated the district’s priority is to return to in-person learning as soon as it is safe and that it has permission, through executive orders made during the pandemic, to meet statutory requirements through an online instruction program.
“The Governing Board and District administration are closely monitoring the situation and review benchmarks and other health information received from State and County sources every month at their meetings. The goal in all these meetings is to plan for a reopening for in-person learning once it is safe to do so. So far, case trends have not indicated that reopening is safe,” FUSD said in a statement regarding Alford’s letter.
In its latest COVID-19 dashboard update, FUSD reported 26 cases among students and staff for the second week of January. Since the start of the school year, 224 such cases have been self-reported to the district.
Meet in the middle?
Members of the parent group said they do not wish for schools to reopen now because of the current COVID-19 situation, but want FUSD to agree to follow the state guidelines for reopening so that when other Arizona schools open their doors, Flagstaff schools can, too.
“If FUSD made a change, the remainder of the schools would follow, the charter schools would follow, because otherwise they would lose enrollment to FUSD, I think,” said Sarah Edmonds, who created the Facebook group. She has a daughter who attends Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy and is actively involved in the performing arts.
As a psychologist, Edmonds said she has been noticing some of the same changes in her daughter she has seen in the adults and teens she counsels.
“They’re more depressed, they’re more anxious and missing out on that social interaction that everyone needs, but especially teenagers who are in those formative years,” Edmonds said.
She referenced a Nov. 2020 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed an increase in mental health-related emergency department visits among children. The study reported that from January to October 2020, children ages 5 to 11 had 24% more ED visits for mental health compared to 2019. Children ages 12 to 17 had 31% more.
Edmonds said the few local private schools that are open now are not a viable option for most families, hence the need for legal support.
“At a certain point, we felt like our voices weren’t being heard through making comments at school board meetings and we felt like we needed to do something that would at least allow us to have the option as parents to be able to send our kids to some type of in-person learning,” she said.
Kellianne Fox said she feels blessed her five kids, ranging from first through 11th grades, were able to have at-home support during remote learning, even though she knows teachers are doing their best. Nevertheless, Fox pulled her two elementary-schoolers from FUSD to home school them instead, leaving the others enrolled only so they would not lose their places in specialty programs.
“My fourth-grader went from hating everything and crying all the time to reading stacks of books for fun, researching things she found interesting, animatedly talking to me and actually learning, because she was ‘not afraid to ask a question on Zoom and look stupid in front of the whole class,’” Fox said in an email. “It broke my heart to learn that she was so terrified every minute of every day.”
Mari Goodman saw similar results when she pulled her daughter, who was in first grade at DeMiguel Elementary, this month to begin homeschooling. Goodman had to start her back at the beginning of the first grade curriculum, however.
“When the numbers were low enough, the community spread was lower and we were in the hybrid range from the state, it would have made sense to have some in-person instruction, so they’re not so far behind the rest of the state when they go back to school. It puts our kids at a huge disadvantage,” Goodman said.
Her older daughter, Sarah, 17, continues to struggle through online classes as she works to earn the few final credits she needs to graduate from NPA this spring. But so far, Sarah said she has been primarily teaching herself and trying to stay motivated daily before she burns out from too much screen time.
In addition to struggling to see the value in her classes, Sarah said she has been experienced depression this year as a result of the changes to her education and the emotional back-and-forth as schools worked to iron out their plans for the year.
“Honestly, if I had known we wouldn’t go back at all this year, if I had known that in August, I would have taken my GED and started college. But I believed there was that chance that I could be with my peers and my teachers. I don’t think any of us wanted to give up on that yet,” she said.
Although Sarah admitted remote learning has brought some good changes, including more free time to spend with her family, she said this learning format is not meeting students’ mental, emotional, physical and social needs.
“The schools are physically incapable of supporting us in the ways that we need right now. Because of the remote format, they can’t tell when we’re struggling and we’re not in a place that we would reach out and seek support. I’m not going to schedule a Zoom meeting with a counselor I don’t know,” she said.
With only a few months left of her high school career, Sarah is now looking into options for college. She is currently leaning toward selecting a small junior college that allowed in-person classes throughout the fall semester, a practice she said has been missed not only among her NPA classmates, but also other students she knows in the community.
“Some students might be doing OK with remote learning, but no one is thriving,” Sarah said.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (928) 556-2253.