Voluntary-only masking policies are not the only thing that differentiates the new school year from 2020-21.
New limits on sex education and on what teachers can tell students about racial and gender discrimination also are coming into play this school year.
The Arizona School Boards Association briefed school officials last week on some of the 50 education-related bills passed by the Legislature that impose new mandates or limits on districts this year.
It also discussed changes in funding that will bring districts some additional money as well as other measures that could severely impact school districts.
One such measure involves the Legislature’s continuation of the formula used to reimburse districts for transportation costs, which currently uses the number of miles buses rolled in the previous school year.
The ASBA noted it urged the Legislature to change that funding formula because buses didn’t roll much last school year due to full and partial campus closures.
“The Legislature did nothing to change how that reimbursement is calculated,” said Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials. “So, you’re going to see a big reduction in the miles that are counted in the calculation.”
Another possible hit to district pocketbooks could result from loosened qualifications for parents seeking vouchers to send their children to charter or private schools at public school districts’ expense.
The Legislature also broadened open-enrollment provisions, requiring school districts to post their open-enrollment policies on their websites.
Under that legislation, the ASBA noted, “attendance boundaries may not be used to require students to attend certain schools based on the student’s place of residence.”
While an individual school’s capacity can still be used to prevent an overload of students, districts “must select students through an equitable selection process like a lottery, giving preference to siblings of a student selected through the lottery.”
The change could keep district lawyers busy, ASBA officials said, because the open enrollment policy covers students with disabilities. Thus, they explained, if a child from outside the district who has disabilities wants to enroll in a school that may not have the facilities to accommodate those disabilities, “that’ll be a question for your counsel.”
The Legislature also codified what has already been a mandate by the state Board of Education: mandatory lessons in junior and senior high school on the Holocaust specifically and genocide generally.
Sex education and lessons on discrimination also have new restrictions this year, including a ban on sex education before fifth grade.
Parents will need to affirmatively opt-in to such classes for their children in grades six to 12. Until now, a parent had to opt-out of such instruction.
When district committees are considering a district’s sex-education curricula, those meetings must be in public and any new sex ed courses must be available for public comment for 60 days and the subject of two public hearings within that time period.
The new version spells out that the ban on sex education prior to fifth grade does not preclude schools from providing “age and grade-appropriate classroom instruction regarding child assault awareness and abuse prevention.’’
Another measure that failed in the Legislature was a requirement for separate parental-signed permission any time there would be a discussion about AIDS and the HIV virus that causes it.
Districts are required to review their sex education curricula for compliance with the new legislation by Dec. 15.
Districts also are limited in how they can train employees as well as teach students about racial, ethnic and gender discrimination.
The Legislature prohibits “instruction that presents any form of blame or judgment on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex.”
Noting teachers could be fined as much as $5,000 for violating that law, the ASBA panelists said the definition of “blame” is spelled out in “a little bit of an awkward way.”
However, the ASBA advised that the legislation is “a little bit more trying to chill some of that discussion rather than actually ban a specific thing.”
Other legislative changes noted by the ASBA included a requirement that every elementary campus has a teacher with dyslexia training by next July 1; exempting school personnel from liability in the case of any COVID-19 infections except in a case of gross negligence; and lifting of letter grades for schools and performance evaluations of teachers and principals for the 2020-21 school year.