CCUSD reopens classrooms

After months of online learning at home due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the state and around the country, most of Cave Creek Unified School District’s students returned to in-person classes Tuesday, September 8.

But not Cactus Shadows High School.

“At this time, we do not have enough staff to safely open and will need to revert to our distance learning model,” Principal Tony Vining said in a September 4 Facebook post.

“I understand that this is not what was expected. However, we determined that with the need for safety to be our utmost concern, it would be impossible to reach those parameters with the current projected staffing.”

Vining posted an update Monday, September 7: “Cactus Shadows will be open for students on Wednesday, September 9. Please make sure your student has a mask. … Students will attend classes in rooms with all available teachers and substitutes. If coverage is not available for a classroom, students will be directed to a safe area for attendance and to complete work assigned by the absent teachers.”

Elementary schools in the district were expected to reopen after a unanimous vote from the CCUSD governing board August 31 to resume in-person classes with social distancing measures. The nearly four-hour meeting had 149 public comments from parents, students, teachers and community members on both sides of the argument.

The governing board’s president, Kathryn Hill, stated that after examining extensive data and seeing a decline in new cases and hospitalizations, she feels the numbers are small enough to make a safe return.

“In knowing that we have concerns about safety for our teachers and our students and our staff, we also have concerns for the educational well-being and mental well-being of our students,” Hill said before voting against a recommendation to delay school reopening.

For students, the return to in-person classes wasn’t likely the school experience they were used to. Parents, teachers and students are now required to follow a new routine of precaution to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In the morning before school, parents must evaluate their children for COVID-19 symptoms like vomiting, sore throat and shortness of breath and must also check their temperatures to be sure it is under 100.4 degrees, according to the CCUSD’s 2020-21 school-year plan logistics.

Social distancing is encouraged as much as possible on buses and in school, and not wearing face masks can lead to disciplinary action, the plan states. Other adjustments to school include but aren’t limited to no early drop-offs, no field trips no group restroom breaks; however, restrooms will be sanitized throughout the school day.

Not everyone was happy about the return to in-person classes.

Jennifer Warner, a CCUSD parent, former critical care nurse and current anesthesia provider, said in a comment during the board meeting that while COVID-19 doesn’t pose as big of a threat in children, they can be asymptomatic carriers and spread it rapidly to others around them.

“The virus is unlike any we have dealt with in recent history with potentially life long-lasting effects that are not yet understood,” her comment said. “The virus is going to be present, circulating throughout the world indefinitely and we need to find ways to mitigate its effects by limiting the spread in our community.”

Some other parents against schools reopening brought up the viral photos spreading on social media showing students across the country in crowded hallways without masks or social distancing. Parents warned that it could be even more devastating for students to return to school only to have to be quarantined and forced to go back to online learning after a potential outbreak.

But many of those who supported the reopening of schools cited the CDC’s paper from late July called “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall” before the vote was taken. The paper outlines the harms tied to the lack of in-person instruction and the benefits that brick-and-mortar schools provide students.

“The harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term, are well-known and significant,” the CDC paper states.

The paper also states that the lack of in-person education disproportionately harms low-income and minority children as well as those living with disabilities.

Many parents brought up the educational gap of online learning in their comments to the board.

“We understand that each parent has a right to express their individual concerns for their children and their family’s safety; however, we believe the child’s education is just as if not more important,” said Robert Young, a CCUSD parent and business owner.

“Unfortunately, the online option is not working for us at all, and we feel our daughter’s education is suffering greatly without the ability to work directly with a teacher in person.”

While many were eager to return to in-person classes, many teachers expressed major health and safety concerns during the meeting.

“The ‘social distancing’ that is being done with desks is only about a foot and half, which is not enough to keep my students or me safe,” wrote Jennifer Cento, an English teacher at Cactus Shadows High School, in a comment to the board.

In an anonymous survey asking CCUSD’s certified teachers about returning to in-person classes September 8, 62% said they would return and 38% said they would not. This survey included 87% of the district’s teachers.

Of those that answered that they wouldn’t return, 33% said they wanted the COVID-19 safe metrics to be fully met, according to the governing board.

The Arizona Department of Health Services set benchmarks for schools reopening and recommended waiting until all  three benchmarks at the county level are in a moderate or minimal transmission category for two weeks.

The first benchmark is COVID-19 cases, where they recommend delaying in-person instruction until there is a two-week decline in weekly average cases or two weeks of less than 100 cases per a population of 100,000. The second benchmark is two weeks with positivity below 7% and the third benchmark is two weeks with less than 10% of hospital visits due to COVID-19 related illness.

Before the vote, Superintendent Dr. Debbi Burdick noted there can sometimes be a 12-day lag in data, which can make it hard to evaluate the numbers to make a decision. This delay is the reason many school districts are waiting a few more weeks to go back, she said.

Burdick mentioned how the administration recommended waiting until all three Maricopa County Department of Public Health benchmarks are in the “green” classification and resume in-person classes a week after the updated data has been inputted. This would mean waiting until COVID-19 cases are under 10 per 100,000 people, as well as waiting until the percent of positive cases and COVID-19 hospital visits are under 5%.

“There is a writer named, Ralph Marston and he wrote, ‘You always have an opportunity to make a good decision, yet you’ll rarely be able to make a perfect decision,’” Burdick said to the board.

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