Sharpen your pencils: Many Arizona schools reopen for in-person instruction

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Tempe High School students rush to their buses in the six-minute time frame they have before their rides take off. (Photo by Kelly Richmond/Cronkite News)

Tempe High School’s nine buses line up Monday to pick up students for the first time since October 2020. (Photo by Kelly Richmond/Cronkite News)

Principal Brian Guliford guides a student to the bus after Tempe High’s first day back to in-person schooling. (Photo by Kelly Richmond/Cronkite News)

Tempe High School’s Sandra Gant helps students find their buses on Monday. (Photo by Kelly Richmond/Cronkite News)

Schools across the state reopened Monday, and many were offering in-person instruction for the first time since being shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman expressed confidence that things will get back on track for students this year.

“But by and large, the majority of our schools across the state will be offering in-person, either starting today, starting next week or by the end of March,” Hoffman said in an interview with KTAR News Monday.

This reopening was prompted by Gov. Doug Ducey’s March 3 executive order that requires schools to offer in-person instruction for students who want it. This change, however, is not mandatory. Students who wish to remain fully remote can do so. In his announcement, Ducey said 12 of Arizona’s 15 counties are “safe to open, including the state’s two largest counties, Maricopa and Pima.”

Parents, teachers and students voiced concerns or enthusiasm, or a mix, for returning to schools. One conflict in Tempe arose last month when parents pooled funds to advertise on a billboard, calling on schools to reopen.

(Video by Sedona Meadows/Cronkite News)

“What I’ve seen is a lot of disrespect,” said Amanda Steele, a parent in the Tempe Union High School District. “Last month, there was a billboard that was posted towards the Tempe Union High School District stating that the district was failing our students, and our district has definitely followed the science and the metrics, but they are not failing our students.”

For some districts, such as Mesa Public Schools, Ducey’s executive order made no difference. The Mesa district began offering in-person instruction in September, according to an email from communications director Heidi Hurst.

For others districts, especially smaller ones, meeting the order is more involved.

“We are now officially at 50% of our district will be remaining remote through the end of the year,” Gabriel Trujillo, superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District, said during a virtual meeting March 11. “Another 42% have selected to come back to on campus learning at their respective grade level and, of course, we are still waiting on 8% of our families.”

Trujillo said educators are looking at a target start date of March 22, after spring break ends. Whether everyone will be coming back versus staying remote is still to be determined.

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For some Arizona educators, the executive order didn’t come as much of a surprise. Beth Lewis, executive director of Save Our Schools Arizona, which advocates for stronger schools, said the order hasn’t had much of an impact. Lewis, who has been teaching fifth and sixth graders for the past 10 years, said school boards already have been planning for reopening and are ready for any changes that come.

“Our school boards, I think, are really representative of the whole state where they’ve been watching local data and using local control to make local decisions and listening to you know, local parents,” Lewis said. “So the governor’s executive order was really kind of a nothing burger for most districts.”

Danielle Pollett and other parents are raising concerns about the pressure educators are under.

“I think, educators and our school staff are feeling a lot of pressure, right now, and it makes me really sad as a parent and a lover of teachers to know that they’re under so much stress in order to make our lives as parents a little bit easier,” the Mountain Pointe High School parent said.

Cronkite News reporter Sedona Meadows contributed to this report.

Ethan Kispert ee-thun kis-pert
News Reporter, Phoenix

Ethan Kispert expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in business. He is working for Cronkite News as a digital reporter this spring.

Sedona Meadows Suh-doh-nuh Mea-dows (she/her/hers)
News Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Sedona Meadows expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in nonprofit leadership and management. Meadows, a production assistant for Arizona Horizon, has interned for Entercom radio and produced for PBS Newshour West. She is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

Kelly Richmond KEL-lee RICH-mund
News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Kelly Richmond has reported for the State Press and Arcadia News. She was a photographer for Cronkite News in spring 2021.