'The Anxiety Is So High' — How School Districts Are Looking At Reopening For In-Person Education
MARK BRODIE: Last week, Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman presented a revised plan to reopen the state’s schools, but they left some key questions on the table. Public health benchmarks will be used to guide a full return to classrooms, for example, but the Arizona Department of Health Services is not set to release those benchmarks until Aug. 7 — that's just 10 days before districts could open some form of in-person education for students in need. And while the state's benchmarks will need to be considered by school districts, local leaders will largely be responsible for deciding what this upcoming school year looks like. That puts pressure on districts and governing board members to determine how best to educate their students. Kristel Foster is among them. She's the president of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board and joins us now. Kristel, good morning.
KRISTEL FOSTER: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
BRODIE: Well, thank you for being here. So let me ask you about what the governor and superintendent last week said, which is that the state will put out benchmarks that districts should consider when making the decision when or how to return to in-person education. What does that mean for your district and what does that mean for you and your colleagues on the governing board?
FOSTER: Well, it's important. That's something I've been advocating for, are benchmarks, metrics — agreed upon metrics so that across the state people can, school board members can be using to make these critical decisions. What's hard, though, is there, really the order that he released, it did double down on requiring schools to open in the peak of a pandemic. And so those metrics are so critical and so important and that we have the authority at the local level to work with each of our county health departments to make those decisions for each of our communities.
BRODIE: Are there particular benchmarks that you would like to see included, that you would like to be able to use to make the decision when to let students back into classrooms?
FOSTER: So I'm not a health care provider or a health care professional, and so I need to depend on the county health providers, county health department, to make those decisions. But I think what's important, something that I'm looking for is we're talking about, a 14-day decrease in numbers, but we're still not talking about how high those numbers truly are. For example, my family — I have family that lives in Colorado — and in Colorado, there were 674 cases across the state. And with the district where my nieces and nephews are going, with 674 [cases] across the state, they are still staying remote until the first quarter, for the first quarter of instruction. Arizona across our state on the same date was 3,023 new cases. And so those numbers are still so high. And while I'm glad that they are coming down and that we do have to watch our numbers coming down, we still need to recognize how many numbers, what the threat is amongst us. And the only way to contribute to bringing those numbers, to continue to bring those numbers down, is to engage in the most effective social distancing strategy we know, which is to keep our schools closed.
BRODIE: What are you hearing from families in your district and from teachers in your district who in theory would be, you know, going back into the classroom along with your students and in some cases might be the more at-risk population since, you know, there's some question, especially with students under 10, how well they transmit the virus?
FOSTER: Right. I'm glad you asked, because what we're really hearing is an indecision. People don't know what to decide. At this point over 50% of our families in Tucson Unified have not decided yet. Will they come back to school in-person, or will they keep their students at home for remote learning? Something I'm proud of at our district is we have already decided that remote learning will be an option for the entire school year, that parents can choose. But our parents are still, they're still, they're not deciding. And that's creating so much anxiety. And our teachers as well. There's so much anxiety. And I don't think we had to have this anxiety. We really could have just said, "We respect the planning and the preparation and we could go remote as a whole state for the first quarter of learning to allow us to really, unfortunately, hash out these political decisions around the data points and around the funding." And we could just make, everybody would know that you'll be safe for the first quarter until October while all of those decisions are still being made. Or we could have made those decisions earlier in June. But right now, the anxiety is so high. We've, like I said, only half of our families have told us what they would like. And of those half, we have about 40% who do want to come back to in-person learning. But with that, only about 25% of our teachers and our classified staff feel safe and comfortable to come back. And when I, so when I spoke to our principals just this past week, the concern is, will we have staff to fulfill this mandate of the governor, which is to have schools open in the peak of this pandemic?
BRODIE: All right. That is Kristel Foster. She's president of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board. Kristel, thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.
FOSTER: Thank you for having us.