Local schools working to finalize plans for reopening this fall are looking at hybrid models, distance learning and online classroom options.
An executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey will eliminate an issue that has traditionally tied funding to the number of children physically in classroom seats.
Sahuarita Unified School District, Continental School District and charter school Great Expectations Academy in Sahuarita are planning on digital components in the next school year to meet social distancing guidelines and accommodate students who may not be ready or able to go to a classroom yet.
Ducey’s order Wednesday provides flexibility to districts and charter schools that implement distance learning plans or hybrid plans without facing a significant drop in funding.
Currently, the state uses physical attendance to calculate financial allotments and online-learners are funded at a lower rate. The latest framework by the state will ensure those districts and charter schools who choose a digital or hybrid learning plan won't have a financial penalty.
SUSD Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said this is an “affirmation” that what the District is considering will be "practical and obtainable."
“Without this consideration and direction it would not be guaranteed to receive all the revenue associated with attendance,” he said. “This funding provides flexibility and supports this.”
Valenzuela said distance and hybrid (some students in class and some online) learning models are being considered for SUSD, and the District wants an option ready to move all students online efficiently should another statewide closure occur.
“If for whatever reasons a family feels hesitant sending their child back we want to offer virtual or online choices and we are continuing to prepare other options including a hybrid,” he said. “If circumstances were challenging to the point where we’d need to hypothetically close schools we need to be ready so we could quickly put everybody online if needed.”
Continental School District Superintendent Roxana Rico said they will give families the choice in either a distance learning or physical classroom option.
The district is in the process of applying to be a “designated online school” and purchasing an online learning platform called Edgenuity.
“What we don't want is for teachers to need to monitor online and in-house students,” she said. “Edgenuity allows us to monitor students’ work and attendance but we’ll be analyzing data we’re seeing online versus teachers monitoring that.”
The district, which has one K-8 school, is also in the process of purchasing additional tablets to provide to kindergarten through second grade students who select the online option. All the district’s third- through eighth-grade students are provided Chromebooks.
Ducey’s order applies to charter schools as well, and Great Expectations Academy wants to offer online options.
Principal Jeremy Topp said the governor’s order appears to boost funding for online learners.
“Part of what we are dealing with is having flexibility to accommodate students with underlying health conditions who aren't returning to school physically but still want to be part of school,” he said. “I think we're appreciative of any kind of support that’s fiscal or academic going forward.”
Families and staff at the academy are split regarding returning to school, and Topp said flexibility is key.
“I think the challenges we have are diverse opinions with everything from parents who want students to return as normally as possible to parents who will want to attend school but only when there’s a vaccine,” he said. “We have to do everything possible and adapt our plan to have all things in place with the caveat that things can change.”
Alongside the order, Ducey unveiled a $270 million Flexibility and Funding for Schools and Families plan through AZCares funding. The state Department of Education is also contributing an additional $25 million in school funding.
The largest portion of this, about $200 million, will be to enhance remote learning opportunities and protect schools from budget shortfalls that occur due to a drop in enrollment. It will ensure schools do not lose more than 2 percent of the funding amount they received last year.
Valenzuela said it's hard to know how many students may not re-enroll, and this part of Ducey’s package creates a “funding floor.”
“It provides a funding floor to uncertainties educators have been worried about across the country — the uncertainty of enrollments in fall and whether a significant number of students would not re-enroll and the implications of that.”
Continental is a smaller district and Rico said their portion of AZCares money is limited. Funding is based on the District's portion of Title I funding, financial assistance to schools with high percentages of children from low-income families.
While the governor’s package helps, they will still receive less than a larger district.
They plan to hire a full-time day custodian to ensure proper cleaning of the school per the CDC and county guidelines. That cost, along with the online program, eat up the $50,000 the district has received in AZCares money, the minimum schools are allotted.
“That money goes fast,” she said. “We submit for it, they give you an allotted amount based on their formula and it’s not a pie-in-the-sky amount. Thermometers, partitions, shields, cleaning supplies, that all comes out of the regular budget.”
Rico said they have to be frugal and creative, and money from their rainy day fund for emergencies will likely take a cut when they purchase everything they need.
Other aid options
Ducey’s plan includes money for other forms of assistance to schools including some micro grants to support innovative programs, increasing broadband in rural communities and some assistance for teacher recruitment through the Arizona Teachers Academy.
All the local districts are interested in exploring the possible funding help through Ducey’s plan.
The districts and charter schools that implement digital learning or hybrid learning models with the latest flexibility measure will need to submit a detailed plan including how they will measure attendance and student participation.
Additionally, those who select hybrid models must "provide education in-person the same number of days per week that they did last school year," according to the state's guidelines. An exception would be made in the case of another statewide closure.
There will also be financial and academic accountability mechanisms they must meet like benchmark testing for students in math and English, a practice most schools adhere to in a normal year.
Ducey's order also eases procurement rules for the purposes of obtaining PPE and any other COVID-related purchases.
A full breakdown of Ducey's $270 million plan for schools is available online.