Schools Brace For Return To Online-Only Classes As Coronavirus Cases Soar In Arizona

Published: Monday, November 16, 2020 - 1:00pm
Updated: Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 12:25pm
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MARK BRODIE: Public health officials are warning the current spike in COVID-19 cases will only get worse after Thanksgiving, and that's contributing to concerns in schools. Last week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said the spike would force schools to make the impossible decision of whether to halt in-person learning again. She called on, "the adults making daily choices that determine the virus's path" to do their part to prevent community spread. But as pandemic fatigue settles in and cases rise, school leaders are weighing each imperfect option. Chris Kotterman is with the Arizona School Boards Association. He joins us now to talk more about this. Chris, good morning.

CHRIS KOTTERMAN: Morning, Mark. Morning, Lauren. How are you?

BRODIE: We're doing all right. So we've heard, Chris, that there are some districts that are moving back to remote learning, some that maybe haven't gone to in-person learning. Do you have a sort of a ballpark sense of where we are at this moment in terms of what districts, especially around the Valley, are doing?

KOTTERMAN: Yeah, most districts around the valley are currently evaluating the Maricopa County Department of Public Health metrics and looking at where they're at. And as those metrics rise, as your first guest just said, as those metrics go up, school districts are going to start looking at whether or not they need to revert to online-only instruction in order to keep that spread from, from getting more severe.

BRODIE: I would imagine that they don't really want to do that educationally. But is there a feeling that they might have to health-wise?

KOTTERMAN: Yeah. So the first thing to understand is that no one really agrees that this rapid transition to online-only education is necessarily a great thing, right? So everyone agrees that it's less perfect than being in school, as everybody wants to be. But the thing about COVID is, it doesn't really care what we want — it cares what we do. So everybody wants to be in school, but administrators have an obligation to protect their communities, especially their students and staff. And so if they feel like the only thing they can do to keep their students and staff safe is to go back to online learning, then that's what they're going to have to do.

BRODIE: One of the things that a lot of school leaders — and we've seen this actually on social media from some teachers have been saying, is that they don't really think that the transmission is happening in schools — it's what's happening in the community. Superintendent Hoffman referenced parents need to make better choices about how they're spending their time and what they're doing, so kids don't come down with COVID and, and maybe pass it to teachers and staff. Is that what school leaders are saying as well, that the transmission is happening in the community, not necessarily within the school?

KOTTERMAN: Yeah. So, I'm not a doctor. Far from it, right? But we do sort of see this idea that the people who fall ill from COVID aren't always or even most frequently the students. They're adults. If the students get it, it's mild. So we're not really concerned about students catching it and, and doing very poorly. But who knows what could happen. But the thing is, people outside of the school behave in an irresponsible manner. They have asymptomatic cases coming into the classroom. They may give it to their fellow classmates or a teacher. Those students then go back to their communities, and then other people end up with it. That's the chain of transmission that we see. We don't necessarily see huge numbers of cases of students, but we see a lot of exposure happening through schools, not necessarily illness among students, but exposure to the virus that we know occurs.

BRODIE: How far ahead are schools able to plan for this? I mean, there's been so much concern about that time between Thanksgiving and the beginning of winter break as people travel and maybe have big gatherings for holidays. Are schools able to decide, "OK, we need to go to remote and do it like tomorrow?" Or do they need more time to prepare than that?

KOTTERMAN: Well, I think that most school districts now have, they started out the year remote, every school did. So the infrastructure, such as it is, is largely in place. But people get used to one thing and then you can't really flip a switch and go back — you sort of have to ramp that down. So most schools say that they need about two weeks to fully ramp up and ramp down a sort of hybrid-to-online transition. And so really, we like to plan a couple of weeks in advance if we can. But if it comes down to it, they could probably flip that switch and make it work, but it would not be preferable.

BRODIE: Right. How much do districts look at what their neighbors are doing? Like, if a district, you know, let's say the, the [Paradise Valley] district, for example, has decided that it's going to go back to remote learning. Like, does that affect Scottsdale and other districts around it?

KOTTERMAN: Yes, absolutely. Especially in where you have open enrollment is such a big thing in the Valley. You have, you don't necessarily have all your students confined to a geographic area. So if you have your two neighboring districts and they're on two different plans, that causes some, some anxiety among parents because they're not necessarily all sending their kids to the same schools. The other big thing is you need, a lot of times you'll have high school and elementary school districts working in conjunction with each other. So the K-8 district and then the 9-12 district may want to coordinate so that if you have students in the same household, they end up running approximately the same schedule. So that's an important thing they always try to do — COVID or not.

BRODIE: Right. All right. That is Chris Kotterman with the Arizona School Boards Association. Chris, as always, good to talk to you. Thank you.

KOTTERMAN: Thank you, guys. Appreciate it.

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