Editor's note: On June 29, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced that the state will delay the start of in-person classes in K-12 schools until at least Aug. 17. School districts could decide to begin classes online only prior to Aug. 17 if they choose to.
Nearly 1,400 Tucson Unified School district parents, principals, teachers, students and community members have signed an open letter critiquing the district’s reopening plans and urging it to delay the start of the school year to protect the health of students, staff and families as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Pima County.
TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo says he agrees with much of what is expressed in the letter, but without intervention from the Arizona state legislature the district is “locked in” to an Aug. 6 start date and in addition to an online option, it must also provide in-person classes.
“The Arizona State Legislature’s absolute failure to address these issues is the latest in a long history of ineptitude and negligence in supporting public education in Arizona, an ineptitude and negligence that pits stakeholders against each other," Trujillo says.
Kat Rodriguez, whose twin daughters attend elementary school in TUSD, helped draft the letter with a group of other parents who had similar concerns about the school year starting as planned with the current upward trend of positive cases.
“We really just wanted to highlight what we feel is lacking in these conversations — and I would say this is something happening on the national, state and local level — is that it’s not centered on and not prioritized around public health and safety,” Rodriguez says.
An executive order released this week by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey provides additional federal funding for schools. The order caps revenue loss at 2 percent, which protects schools against budget shortfalls from anticipated enrollment declines — welcome news for schools, but Trujillo says the order doesn't go far enough to address issues facing TUSD and other districts.
He called for the legislature to reconvene immediately to address three key areas that would give schools the flexibility in reopening.
They include: giving districts the flexibility in the number of required instructional days so the school year could be delayed; allowing districts to resume classes solely online if the minimum number of instruction days cannot be changed; and giving districts the same amount of base support aid for all students regardless if they are attending school online or in person.
“To the governor’s credit he cannot really take these issues on because they are statute and they do require the legislature to reconvene,” Trujillo says. “Funding structure is a function and decision that’s made legislatively, as is the school calendar.”
He urged anyone who signed the letter, and others with similar concerns to contact members of the legislature including Rep. Michelle Udall, who chairs the education committee and House Speaker Rusty Bowers or State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
Trujillo said the district has the ability start the school year later and move the end date further into summer to maintain the 180-days of instruction requirement, but described it as a herculean effort that the district would only consider if it had no other options.
"It's not 100% off the table, I would categorize that as a last resort," Trujillo says. "If we were nearing August and Arizona was still seeing 3,500 cases a day and there was no legislative remedy and we literally had no other recourse, I would certainly be open to entering those discussions but I wouldn’t do so alone. We would need a heavy amount of collaboration with our teachers' union as well as our governing board and our community. It is possible but it’s a very messy possible."
Trujillo said the challenge of reopening schools requires not only proper supplies like contactless hand sanitizer dispensers, plexiglass, touchless water dispensers and masks, but time to train and prepare staff.
"All of that is very time consuming work and there’s this mad rush to Aug. 6 that is quite frankly gonna cost some of that to be missed," he says. "And if some of that is missed and it results in case positives that is going to be very, very hard to me not to look at this legislature and say 'I hold you accountable for this,'" he says.
Vanessa Salaz is a teaching artist in the district's Opening Minds through the Arts program who also signed the letter. She knows first-hand the impact of the virus as her mother is currently hospitalized and on a ventilator. She's concerned about whether plans for keeping kids physically distanced and having enough cleaning supplies are feasible. And she thinks decision-makers should be looking at data rather than a date on the calendar when deciding to reopen.
"It's a task that requires enough time and thoughtful preparation. I don't think it's worth people's lives to rush and throw your canaries in the coal mine or make teachers, or employees and students kind of feel like sacrificial lambs to see how it goes, because it's life or death," she says. "And when the stakes are that high, I think we should be meticulous and thoughtful."
The district has heard recommendations for reopening at its last two board meetings and will finalize its plan at a meeting in mid-July.
TUSD teacher and parent, John Davidson, is worried there will not be enough time for teachers to prepare for what will be expected of them.
"My current concern is that there is not a solid plan. TUSD made it sound like they were going to announce the plan at the last two governing board meetings, but ultimately Dr. Trujillo said that there is not a set plan in place and that there will be more information about a plan at the July 14 governing board meeting," Davidson wrote in an email. "I am concerned that there is not enough time to develop a plan and communicate it to teachers and families so that school is ready to go by Aug. 6."