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FUSD Prepares To Start School Year Online Amid Arizona COVID-19 Surge


Arizona schools are set to return Aug. 17, but districts are wrestling with exactly how to do that as the state has become a national hotspot for coronavirus cases. Last week the Flagstaff Unified School District Governing Board voted to go entirely online until at least Oct. 9 to protect the safety of students, staff and vulnerable community members. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius spoke with Superintendent Michael Penca about how officials are preparing for the uncertainty of the coming school year.

Ryan Heinsius: The FUSD board has voted to start the school year online. What were the main driving factors for you in making that recommendation?

Michael Penca: We’re experiencing some of the most significant levels of transmission and positive cases of COVID-19 that we’ve seen so far yet in this pandemic. And so, it’s been kind of a perfect storm as we’ve been planning and preparing and offering options to then see the numbers really going in the wrong direction in our communities and state. And so, the recommendation’s really based on safety – safety of our students, safety of team FUSD, which is our teachers and our para-professionals and bus drivers and office staff and administrators, it’s everybody. We have about 1,300 employees in our district so we prioritize their safety and then we also understand that our decisions could impact the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. We want to make these decisions based on data, on current conditions, local conditions, and be able to assure our students, our staff, our community that when we reopen our doors it’s safe to do so.

RH: What would be the minimum requirements for returning to in-person classes?

MP: You know, we’re still trying to really identify what’s the best criteria. It would be things like the trajectory, so either decreasing positive cases of COVID-19. We would look at the percentage of positive cases compared to the overall number of tests. Right now in our community that’s hovering right around 11%. We’ve seen national guidance, CDC guidance that should be around 5% positive rate to be able to consider opening those schools.

RH: What lessons did you learn at the end of the last school year when everything went online and how might you be applying that to make digital learning at FUSD more effective?

MP: Yeah, well we heard loud and clear that it didn’t meet the standards and high expectations that we have. We’ve been taking steps really since April and May and throughout the summer to provide more training and opportunities for our staff in how to teach and how students learn in these digital environments; to make more resources available for our staff, more digital curriculum resources. We’ll be prepared at the start of the year to use videoconferencing tools for that one-on-one engagement between teacher and student but also small groups of students or whole class, because students, they learn through the discussion, the questioning, the interaction, the discourse that happens in a class setting that we weren’t able to really replicate last spring.

RH: When FUSD eventually does resume in-person classes, do you anticipate changes to policies regarding employees who might contract the virus? Will they be covered by sick leave for instance?

MP: Absolutely. There are new federal leaves and obviously existing federal leaves that are available so that staff have leaves and accommodations available to them. In our return-to-school plan we outline many of the health and safety preventative measures or ways that we’re trying to mitigate risk to COVID-19 in our plan, and those will be implemented if we have staff working at our school sites even while students aren’t, or when students and staff are all back in our buildings together we’ll continue to work with each of our staff to meet their needs and also balance that with making sure that we’re supporting the educational, the operational needs and mission of our districts.

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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