TOMBSTONE — When students of Tombstone Unified School District start classes Monday, some will be heading to the district’s three campuses for in-person learning.
After evaluating data provided by state and county officials regarding COVID-19 numbers along with other factors, in a 4-1 vote Wednesday evening the TUSD School District Governing Board decided to allow on-site classes for those students who want to return to school using an in-person format.
It’s one of three options families will have when kids return to school on Monday. The hybrid platform, which represents a mix of face-to-face classroom teaching along with remote learning, is another option students have. The third choice is for students to continue remote learning only, which is the format the state’s school districts started using last March when COVID first started spreading across Arizona.
The meeting started out with a lively call to the public where parents, teachers and one student addressed board members about how they wanted to move forward with the school year.
“I would like to have the school (board) give students a choice of either taking online schooling or going to class, because I don’t think it’s fair for the students that want to go to school to be stuck with online schooling,” said Huachuca City School seventh-grader Preston Bidon when he addressed the board.
“And I don’t think it’s fair for students who want to do online schooling to be stuck in a classroom,” he added.
Bidon said he personally learns better in a classroom setting, but respects those students who find it easier to learn remotely with a computer.
“Every student learns differently. Some students need to be in a classroom, like me, and some need to be on a computer,” said Bidon who added that another benefit to being in school is that classroom settings encourage social interaction, something he felt is an important part of a student’s educational experience.
Monday’s school board meeting filled the Huachuca City School Library with masked parents, teachers and staff, sitting six feet apart, to address board members and hear how the vote would go.
While nearly everyone in attendance supported the start of in-person instruction on Monday, two teachers had apprehensions about the measure and pressed the board to wait until the next board meeting on Sept. 9 to decide about starting on-site instruction.
Amber Ford, who introduced herself as the agriculture teacher at Tombstone High School, spoke of the health risks associated with COVID-19, the public’s tendency to ignore social distancing and the refusal by some to wear masks. She also questioned how she would be expected to enforce social distancing in a classroom of 32 students.
“Having courses be solely remote for the time being is the smartest choice for our students, staff and community,” she said. “Just in the last month, we have heard more than three different start dates for the school year with different plans for how they would go, and what a typical school day would look like. The unknown is a constant right now.”
“By remaining virtual, we will be able to build some constants and security into both students and staff, as well as community life,” she added.
Another Tombstone High School teacher, Irene Angelov, told the board that she and other teachers do not feel adequately prepared to start in-person classes at this time.
“If you are in any way able to keep your kids at home, then that’s what you should do,” she said. “There are ways to make online teaching engaging and meaningful.”
Both teachers felt they were being forced into a dangerous situation because of the health concerns that the coronavirus presents.
Staff members who are against opening to on-site learning argue that parents have a choice of whether or not they will send their child to school, but staff do not have that choice once the board approves opening the schools.
Erin Geagan was among the parents who spoke in support of re-opening the district’s campuses on Monday. As a working parent, she said she can’t be at work if she’s at home teaching her children.
“I’m relieved the board listened to the public,” she said after the vote. “I understand the concerns teachers have about COVID, but I think the school is working very hard to take the necessary steps to keep the students safe.”
Following the board’s vote, TUSD Special Education Coordinator Denise Bojorquez said she “firmly believes” the students should be back in school, especially those with special needs.
“By being out of school, these kids are impacted emotionally, mentally and socially,” she said. “Some of the students with special needs are not receiving their specially designed instruction and related services when they are not in school.”
Prior to Wednesday’s board decision, all of the district’s lessons were expected to be done remotely TUSD Superintendent Robert Devere said.
“One of the factors that was considered by our board and administration in deciding to reopen our schools now, is that if we do not open for on-site instruction, we must still open for students,” Devere said. “This comes through the Governor’s Executive Order 51, which states that starting Monday, we must provide instructional support on campus for all students who need special services or who need a place to go during the day. This means that we will have students on campus, regardless of our instructional status.”
Under that mandate, those students must be supervised by a district staff member, which is not necessarily a teacher, Devere explained.
“It was my recommendation to the board to start the in-person instruction,” he added.
Devere said that Gov. Ducey directed the Arizona Department of Health Services to develop metrics that could be used by local school boards and health agencies to help determine when it’s safe to reopen schools on a local basis. The directive, he noted, is intended as one of several tools school districts look at when making that determination.
“We made a decision last night (Wednesday) and now we’re moving forward with it,” Devere said. “Most of our school district staff and parents feel the kids need to be in school and support the board’s decision. There are a lot of unknowns as we move into uncharted territory, but all we can do is address different issues as they arise.”
Jennifer Jensen, whose 13-year-old daughter is enrolled in Huachuca City School, said she is “absolutely elated” with the board’s decision.
“From what I saw here tonight, a very large percentage of the people who attended this meeting supported the decision to start on-site classes,” she said. “I think the kids need to be back in school as soon as possible. My daughter is over-zealous about coming back. She’s excited about seeing her friends and teachers after being away from school for five months.”
A survey was sent out to the district’s parents to determine which of the three options they prefer for their children. To date, over 500 responses have been returned, which represents more than half of TUSD’s student enrollment, Devere said. Once school starts, if parents decide they want to try a different platform for their kids, they are free to make those changes, he noted.
Devere also provided a list of precautions the school district is taking to keep students and staff as safe as possible. Some of the steps include requiring that students and staff wear face masks, the addition of 125 hand sanitizing stations throughout the three campuses, spacing students on buses as much as possible, social distancing in classrooms and providing face shields and gowns for special situations.
“Wednesday’s board meeting represented a great turnout for our district, with a nice mix of both parents and teachers,” Devere said. “Our school board always welcomes input from the district staff and parents so they can make the best decisions. It was great to see this kind of participation.”