Some kids just need a place to go during the day. Some just need a meal, or an internet connection.
COVID-19 hasn’t changed that fact — but it’s made it harder for some Arizona families to find those services, partly due to school closures.
Many state and education leaders do not want to reopen in-person classes yet in the face of the pandemic. Gov. Doug Ducey and schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman announced last week that schools would wait to get the go-ahead to reopen from health officials, who will set benchmarks using health data.
But Ducey’s latest order requires schools to open in some capacity for the students with no place to go starting Aug. 17.
The definition of the students requiring the in-person service is broad, which has led to some criticism from educators worried that schools will be overwhelmed with students seeking in-person education.
The leaders who helped develop the state’s most recent plan, however, say the provision to reopen for vulnerable students is critical.
“Otherwise, they are in an unsafe environment at home,” Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa and chair of the House Education Committee, said.
Which students can go in person?
Representatives from several school districts across the Valley said they were still surveying community members to get a sense of the need for on-site learning starting Aug. 17.
Mesa Superintendent Andi Fourlis said last week that her district would likely prioritize the children of essential workers. Veronica Sanchez, with the Cartwright School District, wrote in an email that parents who need a place to send their kids have been asked to reach out to school principals as soon as possible.
Ducey’s executive order allows schools to limit which students go in person on Aug. 17, so schools are still able to follow social distancing procedures.
One of the largest school districts in the state, Tucson, will seek a waiver from the state to avoid the requirement, Tucson Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo said. Pima County Health Department officials announced on Tuesday that the county’s schools should not reopen, for any reason, as COVID-19 case numbers are high.
Trujillo said the district will still offer very limited in-person services, specifically for students categorized as “medically fragile.” Those students usually need around-the-clock care, he said. The district also will open up some space for students with no internet connections.
“This is an emergency model for an emergency situation,” Trujillo said.
What will school look like?
Udall said how buildings reopen on Aug. 17 for vulnerable students will vary from school to school. She expects that many will open a “learning lab” model, where students sit in front of laptops completing online school, with adults around to monitor and supervise.
The Dysart Unified School District is among the districts opening a community learning lab on Aug. 17, according to Renee Ryon, a spokesperson for the northwest Valley district. The labs are open to all students, but there will be limited space. More information will be available next week.
Hoffman, in announcing the latest executive order, said schools could also develop partnerships with community organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs to meet the Aug. 17 mandate.
That organization has been providing child care since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Cassidy Campana, vice president of communications for the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley. The organization is seeing about a thousands kids a day, she said.
And it’s also readying to see students through the first few weeks of school.
“Clubs are not schools,” she said. “We are not educators, we don’t purport to be educators, but we can provide that safe space, and connection to the internet and meals … and recreation and socialization and emotional support.”
Campana said starting in March, the organization had to become a space where kids could set up for online school. Every child needed to come armed with their usernames and passwords, along with instructions from parents. This upcoming year, aides from school districts will volunteer in different Boys & Girls Club, Campana said.
She said the pandemic has highlighted critical needs of low-income students. Some children had to complete school work on tiny cellphone screens. Some needed the regular meals schools usually provided.
A teenager even left a voicemail for the Boys & Girls Club CEO, Campana said, to thank them for staying open.
“So many families live not just paycheck to paycheck but really right at the edge,” she said.