BISBEE — Though some important questions remained unanswered, the Bisbee Unified School District board members voted to reopen its three schools on Aug. 17 and use a hybrid system of learning.
The hybrid system allows students to attend school in-person for two days and online for two days a week. Temperatures will be checked every day at school. Students will be provided two masks if they do not have any, which are to be worn on buses and during classes. Breaks will be provided so students can go outside and get relief from wearing masks all day.
School district superintendent Tom Woody said teachers and staff will wear face shields.
Bisbee High School students will be able to work online as the school has that accreditation.
“We will have Chromebooks and hotspots available for students choosing online instruction based on need,” Woody said.
Classrooms and facilities will be disinfected frequently and hand sanitizer will be available in each classroom, he said.
There is a possibility the district could remain closed until the end of August due to continued increase in coronavirus cases. But a later start date means a later end date, and it could lead to students having a shorter summer vacation if school resumes in July next year as was planned this year, said Woody.
According to surveys of parents, most preferred dropping off and picking up their own children. Those students with no other option than bus transportation will have masks and physical distancing will be practiced.
Those students using online classes, via Zoom or Google Classrooms, will have to check in and have attendance recorded for each class.
Probably most telling was the preference of parents to begin the school year in September. In the survey, 41 percent of parents were in favor of a start date of Sept. 8, with 19.3 percent preferring the suggested Aug. 17 date.
One parent wrote in response to a question about concerns: “Please do not succumb to the propaganda that this is ‘like the flu.’ Your job as educators is to also educate the community on facts, by creating policies that accurately reflect the true scope of the current infection rate, and not bow down to ignorance, no matter how prevalent. We teach young children how to wash their hands, and many other skills, while at school. We can teach them this as well. There is no vaccine. There is no cure. This is long term and we must treat it as such by educating parents, teachers and children as to the science of the pandemic, not reinforce propaganda and ignorance.”
The vote was not unanimous as board member Scott Hall still believes there are inherent problems and risks for faculty, staff and the students.
Board members Ann Littrell, Carol Loy, Erin Rhodes and Brian Ott voted for it, but all agreed the ever-changing landscape created by the COVID-19 pandemic would need to be monitored and action taken if diagnoses increased or decreased.
Hall’s argument centered on safety and health care for the teachers and concern for students 10 and younger who may not adapt to online classes.
A school nurse could help the situation and prevent problems.
“I just want to be sure our teachers and students are safe,” he said. “We have tenured teachers, at-risk teachers.”
A plan is needed to fill empty spots caused by teachers in quarantine, he said. A list of substitutes should be available to call if needed, he added.
Hall also called for the total cancellation of sports and suggested the school go back to a five-day school week. Bisbee students have a four-day week with longer hours to fulfill the state required classroom hours.
He questioned Woody about teacher and staff sick-leave time. If the virus was contracted at school, he asked if workers compensation would cover the absences.
Woody was not sure how it could be determined if a teacher contracted the virus at school, and said he would check on sick-leave time coverage. Health insurance should cover medical costs.
Ott said there were no answers to Hall’s questions, as much remains to be decided on the state level. He suggested using European countries’ plans to open schools.
Littrell said, “Europe’s cases have slowed. They tested frequently and did contact tracing. We are not comparable with countries that took this virus seriously. We are climbing. Theirs are going down.”
Another problem Woody raised was that some students do not do well in online classes. Administrator Jennifer McBeth said special education and English-language learner students need more attention than can be given online.
Liability of the district was discussed as Rhodes questioned what happens if a child or teacher contracts the virus at school. Woody said the district’s insurance may cover any liability, but he would check with the district’s attorney.
Rhodes said, “I don’t know if putting kids in school at this time is a good thing. I’m concerned with asymptomatic children and teachers. How will we know if they’re carriers? I’m a teacher and I’m concerned about going back.”
Littrell agreed that at-risk students, staff and faculty, as well as vulnerable and at-risk family members needed to be protected and Arizona Department of Education guidelines need to be followed.
She also recommended keeping classes together all day long so if a student or teacher became infected, the class would not spread it.
Loy agreed with others that a survey of teachers and how they feel about coming back to school should be taken and shared with the board prior to the schools opening.
“It would be nice to have their input,” she added. “We really need four weeks of a decline in cases to know things are improving. I know people want to bring their kids to school. And some don’t learn well at home. There’s a lot to consider.”
There was some discussion of testing of faculty and staff, but Woody said it would be up to the individual’s doctors to do the testing. The district could not offer it.
BHS principal Darin Giltner said, “This is a matter of personal and individual choice for the teachers, the students and us. The survey results run the gamut. I think each family is going to have to make their own decisions.”
Lowell Junior High School principal Laurie Miller said she called a faculty meeting for July 16. Many teachers have expressed concerns over sick time and many have mixed feelings about coming back. “They haven’t seen the kids for months, and they want to see them, but they’re worried.”
Miller said that after the closure in March few students participated in online learning, but she agreed with the hybrid plan.
For the little ones at Greenway Elementary, the situation presents challenges, said principal Lindsay Vertrees.
“It’s tricky,” she said. “It’s difficult for the smaller kids to learn online. But, we did do a good job with lesson packets during the shutdown. We’ll have to be creative to be sure the kids are getting what they need. The teachers want to keep the children, as well as themselves, safe.”
The board members decided to have teachers and staff do a survey.
There will be a special board meeting held on Aug. 4 to get the survey results and see if the COVID-19 cases are rising or falling.