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The Tucson Unified School District’s governing board approved a new hybrid learning model for returning to classes but delayed voting on when to implement it.

In a 4-1 vote, the board approved the new model but put off deciding on a return date until the next TUSD board meeting Oct. 27.

Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo asked board members to consider a new start date for the revised hybrid model on Nov. 12, dependent on Pima County data tracking the spread of coronavirus in the county.

To move to the hybrid model, TUSD must meet criteria from Pima County’s COVID-19 Progress Report, which tracks local disease data, healthcare capacity and public health capacity. As of Oct. 1, eight of the nine health criteria are making “progress” or have been officially “met.”

Pima County has not met the benchmark of a two-week decline in the number of COVID-19 cases, and therefore, the district does not currently meet guidelines set out by the Pima County Health Department to return to in-person classes.

Trujillo says this guideline hasn’t been met because of some TUSD schools’ proximity to the University of Arizona campus.

“TUSD is unique amongst the school districts in that we have six schools that are directly on the U of A campus or adjacent to it, so this is really close to home for us,” Trujillo said. “It’s the fact that the COVID-19 spike at the U of A has most influenced the movement backward of this key metric in the last two weeks that still does have me concerned.”

According to a survey taken by more than 20,000 parents and teachers within TUSD, 56% support remote learning only, while 44% support returning to classes with a hybrid model.

“This hybrid model places education utterly last on the list of priorities,” Cheryl Watters, a teacher and parent in the district said in an email read aloud at the board meeting. “Instead of teaching, I will be disinfecting my classrooms and monitoring my students to be sure they are complying with the safety protocols. I will now be responsible for the physical health of my students. How can I focus on teaching when I carry that weight?”

Vicki Saunders, an office assistant at Rincon High School, wrote, “I’m strongly in favor of moving to a hybrid model on Oct. 19, because our students are asking to return and begging to return... We have so many students struggling academically, mentally and physically.”

Largely split on the decision of returning to schools, the TUSD board voted to delay the vote 3-2 with members Adelita Grijalva and Rachael Sedgwick opposing.

“If this item passes and we table this until [Oct.] 27, I would hope that on that date, we can have a real honest discussion about pushing this off and the majority of the board will make a decision then,” Grijalva said. “While I know that our teachers are in limbo and will feel it, I think that will give us an opportunity to get some breathing room.”

Sedgwick said delaying the vote will put a further burden on teachers who would have to quickly adapt their lesson plans to fit a new hybrid model.

“I think we understand how difficult it is to prepare a classroom for a school year with just two weeks’ notice, and for this board to continue to put this decision off is to make hundreds of thousands of people wait for our decision every two weeks,” Sedgwick said.

Trujillo mentioned many teachers’ concerns about adjusting to a hybrid model, but ultimately recognized that nearly half of survey respondents want in-person learning.

“I think we are in a situation where we have an opportunity to craft a solution that works for all of our stakeholders, and yes, the teachers are a major stakeholder in our district, but so are the parents,” Trujillo said. “We have had 45% of 20,000 respondents that have said they want some sort of in-person instruction, they want some sort of a hybrid model. If even 5% of the 20% of those respondents leave the district over this, our financial implications could be staggering and they could be crippling.”

However, based on Pima County Health department data, Trujillo said the board has “very justified reasons” to wait to vote on a return date.

TUSD’s new hybrid model

The TUSD board approved a new hybrid model for returning to school in-person that involves separating students into hybrid and online-only groups.

Four days a week, in-person students learn at their physical school sites for the first half of the day and work remotely from home the rest of the day. On Wednesdays, every student attends class remotely.

Remote students work asynchronously in the mornings and attend online teacher-led instruction in the afternoon. While teachers are instructing remote students the second half of the day, students in the hybrid system work asynchronously.

Asynchronous work involves working on class projects and assignments, social-emotional learning lessons with counselors, specialized services and working on digital platforms, according to a presentation from TUSD.

Sedgwick, the only board member to vote against the new hybrid model, said managing teaching both online and in-person could lead to teacher burnout. She also questioned the possibility of social distancing and thoroughly sanitizing in a school setting.

Trujillo said the hybrid model involves extending the passing period for secondary schools to 10 minutes and allows teachers to use a “vindicator bottle” to sanitize their classrooms between class periods.

While he recognized teacher burnout as “a significant concern,” Trujillo also said the district made many accommodations since its first hybrid model draft, which would not have allowed students contact with their teachers every day, and would put some at risk of having to switch to a different teacher than they started the school year with.

The superintendent said teachers would not have to manage two environments at the same time and would have daily preparation time.

Board member Bruce Burke supported the hybrid model and acknowledged the collaboration TUSD put into creating it.

“I think you’ve really done a very good job in pulling together all the disparate elements of concern within the district, a lot of legitimate concerns,” Burke said. “We recognize that no model is perfect, but this one is very, very good.”

TUSD also came up with a contingency plan if the percentage of students who wish to attend classes in-person is at an unsafe level. This level, which the district refers to as a “threshold,” depends on each campus, but TUSD says most are between 45-60% of students on campus.

If a threshold becomes too high, the school will have the option of splitting their in-person students into two cohorts to attend classes on different days. Cohort A would attend on Mondays and Thursdays while cohort B would attend on Tuesdays and Fridays.

Starting today, TUSD will distribute emails, robocalls and text messages to families to remind them to choose the hybrid or remote plan within the district’s online portal.

The school board will reassess Pima County Health Department data and vote on a return date when they meet again Oct. 27.

“Minimally, we do have some time and opportunities to gather some more feedback, because I do think that this model and what you all were able to do is only because the district was willing to listen to feedback,” Grijalva said. “Now, I think we just have to look at what the safety concerns are, which I do think are legitimate, and we’ll continue to look at the data.”