PHOENIX – A White House panel of parents, teachers and school administrators said Tuesday that reopening schools this fall should be the nation’s top priority, for the wellbeing of students and parents and as a move to “stabilize our society.”
But while the panel pushed for schools reopening “quickly and beautifully in the fall,” as President Donald Trump put it, some teachers and parents in Arizona said they worry that schools here will not be able to find safe ways to do it.
“As a mom and as a teacher, I want my kids to be with their friends. I know that in-person is better for them,” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, communications director for Save Our Schools Arizona.
“But they (Arizona schools) can’t afford to keep my kids safe,” said Penich-Thacker, who worries that Arizona schools do not have the tools to make a safe return. “I see it from the inside that there are not enough resources.”
Gov. Doug Ducey last week ordered the start of in-person classes in Arizona pushed back to Aug. 17, one of several steps he took in the face of spiraling increases in the state’s COVID-19 cases. While the delay gives schools more time to prepare for schooling in the face of the coronavirus, it also means that schoolkids will have spent more than five months away from a classroom.
That’s five months of teachers and students adjusting to online education, five months of school systems scrambling for resources and five months of harried parents juggling jobs, housework and their kids’ educations.
“As a single mom, this situation is ripping me to shreds,” Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots and one of the White House panelists.
“I’m doing the very best I can to take care of them (my two children) … and run a company and work,” said Martin, a Georgia resident. “It’s impossible.”
Martin said the return to school could “stabilize our society.” But she and others at the panel worried that continued absence from school will make the traditional “summer slide” in schoolkids’ learning even worse.
Lynette Stant, a third-grade teacher at Salt River Elementary School and Arizona’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, said she is eager to see her students again after leaving them in March and going months without seeing them. But she said student safety needs to be a priority.
“The health of our state is really critical,” she said. “And even though my teacher heart is broken, we all need to get healthy.”
As a member of the Navajo Nation and teacher in an Indigenous community, Stant has seen how COVID-19 has “infected communities like wildfire.”
Arizona Parent Teacher Association President Sergio Chavez agreed, saying that the safety of the students is the PTA’s “no. 1 priority.” And right now, Chavez said, schools are not equipped to ensure a safe return.
“There is no way to actually have them secure. There is no magic wand to wave and say, ‘OK, this is going to be safe,'” Chavez said. “Sending them to school, you’re endangering everybody.”
Penich-Thacker, who is a substitute teacher for special education students in the East Valley, said she plans to keep her own children, ages 9 and 11, out of school and taking their classes online for the year.
“I’m heartbroken over it,” she said. “They’re disappointed, I’m disappointed and I know it’s not going to be the education that they would get in-person. But I also know that any public school in Arizona is incapable of meeting CDC guidelines. We simply can’t afford it.”
In ordering a delay to the school year, Ducey also said the state would direct $270 million in coronavirus relief funds to schools, with the bulk of that money, $200 million, going to support school budgets in the face of dwindling enrollment.
But Chavez and Penich-Thacker both think it will not be enough. The funding only “helps stop the bleed,” Penich-Thacker said.
“It doesn’t allow for anything extra,” she said, pointing to the cost of personal protective equipment, proper staffing and creating space to ensure social distancing in already packed classrooms if schools want to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Penich-Thacker said she knows she is one of the lucky ones, as she has a flexible job that will let her keep her kids at home. “If keeping my kids out of the classroom means there’s two more seats for kids to be spread out who have to be there, that’s good,” she said.
But not everyone can – or will want to, Stant said.
“I’ve heard from some families and students saying, ‘I’m not ready to go back. I’m scared,'” she said. “But I’ve also heard from families that say, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do about childcare.'”
Even though Stant said she is excited by the thought of reuniting with her students this fall, she said she would support pushing back the Aug. 17 in-person start date and continue with online learning if Arizona does not get the virus under control by then.
“Let’s move cautiously. Let’s continue to remain fluid. Let’s continue to put the health and safety of our students and our families and our educators at the forefront,” she said.