Letter to the Editor: Reader believes Safford Schools should reopen to in-person instruction

Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald

Editor’s Note: This letter was written to Safford Superintendent A.J. Taylor on Aug. 14 and then shared with the Gila Herald.

Dear Mr. Taylor,

You and the five school board members have complete control of the health of our community right now. The health of the relationships in our homes, the heath of the children and placing them in structured learning environments, the health of the parents who have multiple children and both work full-time jobs, the health of parents who are in school to better the lives of their children, the health of in-person social interaction between children, the health of our lives due to the increase in overdoses nationally (up 17.59% between March 19 to May 19), the health of our neighbors due to internal family isolation and child loneliness, the health of the single parents working two jobs to put food on the table just trying to survive, the health of shift working parents who do not have the ability to practice “distant learning”, the health of the teachers who are burdened with the responsibility of developing a whole new curriculum, etc. The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) states the importance of this health in a recent document, “Aside from a child’s home, no other setting has more influence on a child’s health and well-being than their school. The school environment helps with the following: provides education instruction, supports the development of social and emotional skills, creates a safe environment for learning, addresses nutrition needs, and facilitates physical activity”. What is it going to take from the community in order to help you and your board members understand these things?

Arizona’s Governor Doug Ducey put out a news release on July 23, 2020, titled, “Arizona: Open For Learning”. In this news release, the Governor provided numerous options for the state’s schools and provided flexibility to the school districts to “make the best decisions for their students”.

  • News release topic #1 – Leaning must start immediately: “While much of the public discussion has been focused on a certain date, learning needs to start ASAP. The focus should be on ensuring that Arizona students have a successful academic year – and that will, in fact, look different than ever before given the ongoing pandemic.” How do you plan on having a successful academic year with the implementation of distance learning? This is impossible!
  • News release topic #2 – Requirements for on-site learning and support services: “Schools must begin offering free on-site learning and support services for students who need a place to go during the day on Aug. 17, 2020, as prescribed by Executive Order 2020-44. This is especially important given some parents work in critical and essential occupations and are unable to accommodate virtual teacher-led instruction in their homes. We also know that many children don’t have access to technology. Given income inequality issues in our communities, we must provide on-site learning options and support services for students”. Was this completely missed by you and the board members prior to the board meeting on Aug. 13, 2020? How can you explain your complete disregard for the Governor’s orders?
  • News release topic #3 – Benchmarks and flexibility for opening safely: “Governor Ducey is providing maximum flexibility to local school leaders, recognizing they need the expertise of public health professionals and data to guide their decision making. The ADHS has developed and released public health benchmarks for the safe return on in-person, teacher lead classroom instruction”. The document ADHS released is titled “Roadmap for Reopening Schools – June 2020” and is a 41-page document with many recommendations and guidelines. Of those guidelines, I’d like to point out a major one, and the one that should mean the most to you and our community, which is Health Protocols. The ADHS lists 13 questions to answer and states if the answer to any of the questions is “no” then the school should consider not opening. Please view the Roadmap and read pages 14-16 to see these questions. In addition to the Roadmap, the ADHS has released three additional benchmarks which I’m sure you are aware of. Although these benchmarks exist, there is no reason that schools cannot open even if they are not met; they are simply recommendations as outlined on page 4 of the ADHS document “Safely Returning to In-Person Instruction.

Benchmarks – Graham County

1a) decline in cases (not met) or
1b) less than 100 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks (not met, by a total of one case)
2) two consecutive weeks with percent positivity below 7% (not met, but there has been one week of decline at the time of the latest data)
3) two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses in the region below 10% (met, with only 3.5%).

This data is only good through July 26 and if you extrapolate it up to today, I believe we would meet all three benchmarks. The Gila Valley has seen a decrease in positive cases over the past two weeks and this should be taken into consideration. Can the board not answer yes to the 13 questions referenced in the ADHS document hyperlinked above? Have you attempted to extrapolate the latest data it to have a better representation of the current situation? Does SUSD have a mitigation plan in place, or the “how”?

News release topic #4 – The achievement gap: “According to a 2020 analysis by McKinsey and Company related to the impacts of the pandemic, learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, black, and Hispanic students. Lower-income students are less likely to have access to high-quality remote learning or to a conducive learning environment, such as a quiet space with minimal distractions, devices they do not need to share, high-speed internet, and parental academic supervision.” Does this not worry you or the board members? Wouldn’t opening the schools be the greatest benefit to all the children?

Senator Sylvia Allen commented on Ducey’s news release and this is what she said. “I thank Governor Ducey for his leadership in providing flexibility to schools, especially in rural communities, to determine their best course of action in reopening schools. The additional resources will make certain that schools that do reopen for in-person instruction will have all the assistance they need to protect the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff. This will also ensure that to the greatest degree possible, we will give every Arizona child the quality learning environment that will serve them well.” I agree with this statement from the senator and I believe our community does as well.

This is not a letter of opinion but rather factual and I ask that you read it in that manner. On behalf of the well-being of our community and our children, you have the responsibility to get our kids back to school and I hope you do so this coming week. We need to come together as a community to fight for our children!

One of many concerned parents,

Tanner S. Bingham