Some Arizona schools are returning to distance learning under the strain of omicron

By Rocio Hernandez
Published: Friday, January 14, 2022 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, January 14, 2022 - 7:40am

Audio icon Download mp3 (6.52 MB)

Desert Heights Charter School in Glendale
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Desert Heights Charter School in Glendale on Jan. 13, 2022.

Students at Porfirio H. Gonzales Elementary School in Tolleson were eager to return to class last Monday, said Principal Cynthia Mills. 

"Kids absolutely want to be here," she said. "They love being in school. School is a safe place for them."

But not all students were able to get back to school right after winter break. Last week, Mills said the school of about 800 students located in the heart of the West Valley city had a 10% absent rate. Some of Mills' students were out either because they contracted COVID-19 or someone in their house was sick. 

Students aren't the only ones absent at schools right now. Teachers who are sick or are quarantining or caring for sick family members are also calling out.

In a recent tweet, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas warned parents that these absences could result in a temporary shift to remote classes. 

Cynthia Mills
Tolleson Elementary School District
Cynthia Mills

"I just don’t want people to be caught off-guard," he said. 

Thomas’ prediction has become true at some schools. The San Carlos Unified School District went entirely virtually this week and will continue in that mode next week due the “surge of COVID-19 cases among staff and students within each school.” 

The Deer Valley Unified School District, which doesn’t require masks, has had to temporarily shift about a dozen classrooms, primarily at the pre-K level, to distance learning since last Monday.  

“Students are very interactive in a pre-K classroom," said Gary Zehrbach, the district’s deputy superintendent. "The teachers are very interactive with them. They’re very close, and so when cases do come up in pre-K classrooms that’s a situation where basically everyone becomes a close contact."

Some of those classrooms are already back in-person but Zehrbach said it's likely the district will convert more classrooms to distance learning over the next few weeks as omicron continues to circulate in the community. 

On Thursday, the Phoenix Union High School District announced that it will holding iDays — days dedicated to individualized learning that they can do from home or safe space on campus — every Monday starting Jan. 2gonza4 through Feb. 28 due to the impact the rise in COVID-19 cases has had on the district's workforce. In a Tuesday email to KJZZ News, the district said it's seen an uptick in staff and student absences this semester. 

"On average, we usually have around 10% of our staff absent on a given day," said a district spokesperson. "So far, we have seen about 15% each day."

The iDays will provide the necessary balance to offset PXU's workforce challenges and provide the necessary coverage to support the social and emotional health of its students, teachers, staff and families, the district said in a Thursday statement. 

Meanwhile, in Pinal County, the Casa Grande Elementary School District has had to close three of its school sites — Cactus Middle School, Village Middle School and its Early Childhood Learning Center — starting Wednesday through Jan. 21 due to staffing challenges. This impacts more than 1,600 students.  

“So we're talking about large numbers of staff. Across our district yesterday, we had 115 absences, and 82% of those were not filled," said Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales.

JoEtta Gonzales
Casa Grande Elementary School District
JoEtta Gonzales

Typically, the district is able to pull in support staff members to cover for absent teachers, but now even those folks are not an option. 

“They are all out with COVID. I mean, every single person that we would normally use to help fill those positions are out," Gonzales said.

Going virtual was a last resort, and it’s not at all what the district wanted, especially given Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent call to keep in-person learning going.

“It would be wonderful, wonderful if we had parents or community members or you know, even somebody as big as the National Guard to come in and provide support to help us stay open, but we can't stay open if we can't keep kids safe," Gonzales said. 

But Ducey thinks parents should have options. Last week, he announced that if a school closes for even one day, certain families could qualify for a school voucher of up to $7,000 to cover expenses such as tuition at parochial or private schools. 

“In this program what we are really seeking to achieve is a lifeline for parents who simply don’t have an alternative for when their school closes down," said Kaitlin Harrier, Ducey's senior education policy adviser. 

But district schools aren’t the only ones that are returning to distance learning this week. Rancho Solano Preparatory, a Scottsdale private school, moved its middle and high school students to virtual, and Desert Heights Charter School in Glendale moved all its grade levels to virtual as well. Both schools are planning to bring their students back to in-person by Jan. 24. 

"We know that this decision can create challenges for you and your household," the Glendale charter school announced on Tuesday. "However, we felt that this was the best, and safest, recourse for us as a community at this time." 

Desert Heights school
Sky Schaudt/KJZZ
Desert Heights Charter School in Glendale is one of the schools that moved all its grade levels to virtual. It is planning to bring their students back to in-person by Jan. 24, 2022.

Mills questions why the $10 million for these vouchers wasn’t just given to schools directly. 

“If that funding is available, give it to the schools so that we can pay enough to retain staff," she said. 

Ducey’s office has not responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, at the Casa Grande Elementary School District, Gonzales is optimistic that her school closures won’t be a repeat of the March 2020 shutdown and instead be temporary. 

“I'm hopeful that we will continue to have more well than sick and that we're getting past this big wave that we've been in the past couple of weeks," she said. 

More Stories From KJZZ

BusinessCoronavirus Education