Peoria Unified governing board

On Aug. 27, the Peoria Unified governing board voted 3-2 to reject a request to reopen schools fully Sept. 8. The district remains in remote-teaching mode for its Glendale and Peoria students.

Normally, Labor Day is the first break for kids from the classroom.

But 2020 is about as far from a “normal year” as Pluto is from the sun. Most Peoria kids have not been in a classroom for six months.

Though some charter schools started teaching in classrooms this week, Peoria public schools remain in remote-learning mode.

After passionate pleas on both sides of the issue at an Aug. 27 meeting, the Peoria Unified School District governing board voted 3-2 to reject a request to reopen schools fully Sept. 8. 

After the vote, a student started an online petition demanding a board member to resign.

PUSD is using the Florida Virtual platform for teaching students at home.

With 37,000 students in Peoria and Glendale, PUSD is one of the five largest school districts in Maricopa County. 

COVID-19 positive cases fell drastically over the last week in Maricopa County. After an average of 2,250 new COVID-19 cases per day in Maricopa County in July, last week’s numbers were less than one-tenth of that, averaging less than 210 new cases per day.

Yet Peoria public schools remain in remote-learning mode, with limited on-site locations for students who need a place to go. 

And PUSD has no firm date for reopening in-classroom teaching. While Gov. Doug Ducey gave districts authority to reopen when they feel they can do so safely, the state provided COVID-19 metrics to help districts make informed decisions.

The latest School Reopening Dashboard and Guidance at the Maricopa County Department of Public Health showed most of Peoria and the West Valley was “in the red”—meaning a high level of community spread of coronavirus.

According to the site, “The two key components to reopening school buildings for in-person instruction are the quality of the school’s mitigation plan and the level of spread occurring within the community where the school is located. Public Health has created a dashboard tool to assist with decision-making for the types of learning scenarios schools may consider for re-opening.”


Impassioned debate

The highlight of the Aug. 27 PUSD governing board meeting was a “motion to consider reopening of schools on Sept. 8.”

According to Kim Kontra, the board secretary, PUSD received 217 public comments. Of them, 66% were in favor of reopening Sept. 8 and 22% were against reopening then.

Five comments in favor of reopening were read and three against.

A sample of the comments that were read:

“(Remote) learning is not designed for the success of kindergarten students. … Both my husband and I work full time so this has been a challenge.”

“Kids learn way better with a teacher not a computer. … I prefer facts over feelings. Children represent such a minimal threat for passing on the virus. Our lives are not meant to be lived in a bubble.”

“Please reopen the schools as soon as possible. … Students at the upper level are not engaged with learning and are doing little learning. … The numbers in Arizona are not just trending downward, they are dropping rapidly.”

“My son is having such a hard time with online school. … Please open in-school class. Otherwise I feel we have lost a generation.”

“I’d like little more than preparing my classroom to welcome students back and I imagine most teachers feel the same. … I so miss the hallway bustle and bustle. I also now fear those hallways. … This situation can truly mean life or death. What if a student transmits the virus to a teacher who then has a lifelong health issue or worse? … We will not know if we were too cautious, however we will know if we are not cautious enough.”

“It is not safe. You will be putting thousands of lives at risk. Schools should not open until there is a vaccine or COVID-19 has been properly addressed.”

“Please follow the metrics. … There is no rush when there are lives at risk.”


The PUSD vote

 Two hours and 20 minutes into the Aug. 27 meeting, Beverly Pingerelli made a motion to fully reopen schools Sept. 8. Judy Doane seconded it.

Pingerelli and Doane voted for the measure. After board President David Sandoval and Monica Ceja Martinez voted against, the deciding vote came down to Cory Underhill. She voted against and the motion failed, meaning classrooms will remain closed indefinitely.

Sandoval said he visited a few remote classes and talked to teachers.

“They want their kids back—but in a safe environment,” he said.

“I stand by our board decision to really allow the data to drive us to when it’s most safe,” Sandoval said. “I think that’s smart. I think it’s responsible.”

Before her vote, Doane made strong statements, including: “More people die from car accidents than COVID. Do we tell everybody to not drive? … People die all the time, and God knows, I am sorry that death happens. I’m sorry that it happens to anybody, but it happens to everybody. And the world does not stop. COVID is not the biggest threat to our children. Being out of school is helping to destroy families, lives.”

Rosa Wheeler, a Peoria High senior, started an online petition: “We demand that board member Judy Doane step down immediately for her cavalier attitude towards the danger she is voting to put children in by sending them back to in-person school during a worldwide pandemic while the city is still in the red for COVID-19 cases.” As of Sept. 1, the petition at had 513 signatures.

Before the vote, Superintendent Jason Reynolds gave a presentation on COVID-19 metrics, with one slide showing the district to be in “green,” one of three key benchmarks: “Two weeks with hospital visits due to COVID-like illness below 10%.” (The district was at 3% as of Aug. 27.)

But the positive tests in surrounding areas were shown to be above 8%, with the goal of “Two weeks with less than 7% positivity.”

And the district had not yet met the third benchmark: “Two week decline in cases or two weeks with new case rates below 100 per 100,000.”

Some schools in the Peoria Unified district do have students, though in a very limited fashion. Following Ducey’s order, PUSD has  “on-site learning opportunities and support services for students who need a place to go during the day.”


More comments

Several commented on a Facebook post by the Peoria Times on the PUSD board vote. 

“Please, schools need to be open,” wrote Julie Bredow. “Online is just not the same for early learners. 

“My kindergartener has no problem wearing a mask and understands why it is necessary. Perhaps online learning is OK for junior high and high school, but I truly feel the young ones are getting further behind and will have to play catch-up for a long time.”

Krista Howes, the parent of a fifth grader, said the Florida Virtual platform is severely flawed. “Kids can’t work after 8:30 p.m. Teachers do not know how to use it.”

Howes said she shared her concerns with her child’s school. “They said it will work itself out.”