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Superintendent Update and Survey (March 5, 2021)

March 5, 2021 (Español)

Dear Amphitheater Families:

Since we last wrote to you about reopening our schools, we have received a great deal of input from many people with divergent views on the matter. After considering all the input, we will, in fact, reopen fully the week after Spring Break. However, we are making an adjustment to the date to ensure that our schools have an opportunity to prepare for this much-anticipated return.

Our start date will be Wednesday, March 24. On Monday, March 22, and Tuesday, March 23, all students will learn remotely, with our On-Campus Supervision available as capacity permits.  This soft reopening will allow teachers to plan for both in-person and any virtual alternative they will be providing.

Below you will find a link to a survey that asks you to tell us whether your children will return to school in person. Please return it as soon as possible. Schools need this information no later than Wednesday, March 10.

Link to Survey: 

https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/FourthQuarterChoice

 

March 1, 2021

Dear Amphitheater Families:

With community COVID data improving and ongoing studies about the safety of schools bringing more and more encouragement, the Amphitheater District has set a target date of March 22 for full in-person learning.  Our ability to fully open on that date will depend on several factors: 

  • continuing improvements in our local pandemic conditions;
  • input from our teachers and other district staff;
  • identifying an alternative for families who do not wish to attend school full-time in-person and who are not able to attend our online school due either to enrollment limitations or other factors; and
  • continued adherence to our mitigation strategies following full reopening, such as:
    • mask-wearing;
    • hand-washing (we have added hand-washing stations at our elementary schools);
    • physical distancing of 6 feet where possible;
    • optimization of ventilation system operation;
    • additional custodial staff on campus to perform touch-point cleaning in addition to regular deep cleaning; and
    • continued commitment to contact-tracing.

We will be meeting with groups of staff later this week to get their input on how we can safely reopen. We will also ask families to let us know which mode of learning they are selecting for each of their children. We will need a commitment for each child so that we can plan and adjust accordingly.

Why consider reopening fully now?

The Amphitheater District has always promised to be guided by science and health officials. In the year since schools were first closed, science and health official guidance has evolved, and we are now at a point where an abundance of research shows that schools are safe – and may well be the safest places for children to be – because of their inherent adherence to mitigation. We are also at a point where nearly all our staff have had access to at least one COVID vaccine. Many have had two.

We feel confident that we can safely open our schools fully if we all work together. Once we have collected input from our staff, we will determine whether we can move forward with the March 22 target date.

Commitments

If we are able to open fully on March 22, we ask for some other commitments from our families:

  • Please ensure your children follow CDC recommended practices to avoid the spread of COVID when they are not in school. This means avoiding group activities, and/or ensuring mask-wearing, physical distancing and washing hands. All of the cases reported to Amphi schools in second quarter were contracted outside of the classroom. No cases were transmitted within the classroom during that time frame, so we know the importance which consistency in mitigation efforts holds.
  • Do not send your children to school if they are sick. This includes sore throat, cough, headache, fever, stomach problems, loss of taste or smell. Do not send your students to school if they are awaiting results of a COVID test or if they are quarantining due to a COVID exposure.

In the past year, we have learned a lot about the pandemic. We have learned how to protect ourselves and each other. We now have three approved vaccines to help contain it. We are making great progress, but we also know that we must learn to live with it.  We cannot wait until COVID is totally eradicated to return to school; that could take years. But with proper mitigation measures and a common commitment from the District and our families, we can bring some normalcy back to our children, and we can do so safely.

Please expect an update soon, as we gather information, data and input that will allow us to confirm whether we can meet our March 22 target date for “full reopening”.  We thank you for your patience and understanding as we work through this process of serving very divergent views in very unusual times and circumstances.

Sincerely,

Todd A. Jaeger, J.D.
Superintendent

February 4, 2021 (Español)

Dear Amphitheater Employees and Families:

Once again we find ourselves making a most difficult and polarizing decision: open our schools to in-person learning or continue providing education remotely. Making this decision has never been easy, as constituent sentiments and interests on the matter vary and many factors must be weighed.  These factors include but are not limited to: health and safety metrics and guidance; educational quality; and the social-emotional wellbeing of students, staff and families.  This letter will provide information on the factors which have been considered in the making of this most recent decision, but the bottom line is that we will adhere to the plan we announced a couple of weeks ago to open in a hybrid model on Feb. 15.

This will, of course, be our second shift into hybrid learning, and we are reviewing what we learned during the first quarter of the school year to identify and implement adjustments and improvements that can be made in our educational methods, content and quality.   You will receive additional information about those changes in the future, but I want to spend some time in providing you with some other important information that has factored into the immediate decision to continue with reopening our schools in hybrid mode.

Surveys

I want to thank all the families and employees who participated in the surveys we sent last week; the responses were invaluable in helping us understand what our community wants and needs in these ever-evolving and changing circumstances.  We will share more detailed results from those surveys at Tuesday’s Governing Board meeting, but here is a snapshot of trends in the responses thus far: 

Families 

Nearly 4,000 families responded.  Of those responding:

  • About 26 percent indicated a preference to remain in our current “Remote by Necessity” model;
  • About 26 percent stated a preference for returning to the Hybrid model;
  • 40 percent prefer full-time in-person; and
  • Approximately 8 percent prefer ongoing and separate online instruction.

Employees

About 1,200 of our District employees have responded to the survey.  Of those responding:

  • 52 percent indicated a preference to remain in “Remote by Necessity”;
  • 27 percent stated a preference for Hybrid learning at this time;
  • 19 percent prefer full-time in-person learning; and
  • about 2 percent prefer ongoing and separate online learning only.

At first glance, it would appear there is a large disparity between the opinions of families and employees, but the reasons for differences are not as obvious. One thing is clear based on the comments received from both surveys: parents and families all want what is best for children.

Another thing became evident in our staff surveys which may at least partially explain the differences of opinion regarding the current Remote by Necessity model.  Many teachers who expressed a preference for the model said they did so because they are seeing improved student engagement and attendance in this mode than they saw during the hybrid model. Teachers said they feel they are connecting better with their students in the current model because they are seeing them every day, and the students are seeing their classmates every day -- albeit on a computer screen.

Not surprisingly, most families who preferred student learning at school and in-person are motivated by the very same issues; they expressed strong desires to see their children to learn, engage and connect as they believe children only can when at school.

Shared Priorities

It remains as clear as ever that we all want children back in school, because we all generally recognize that children have suffered, both academically and socially.  There is a common understanding on a national level that the mental health and well-being of our students is a top concern.  That shared concern is a big driver in the growing public beliefs that schools must reopen and do so sooner rather than later. Students need to see their teachers and school support staff and their friends. And, we have also found that most of our staff expressed being happier, less isolated, and more optimistic when our children were at school.  Again, we can all agree on these things.

The discussion and beliefs regarding personal safety, however, are more divergent. Some employees and parents express worries about potential health implications for themselves, or for their families and students, should schools move toward reopening.  Concerns of this nature have been present throughout this pandemic of course, but when public health metrics began skyrocketing after the holidays such concerns became more widespread and more intense. This continues to be reflected in our most recent surveys, particularly among our employee responses, and I hear those same concerns in my direct conversations with employees as well.

I wholly appreciate those concerns, and I cannot help but feel conflicted when I hear them.  But I am also greatly encouraged and reassured by health officials at the local, state and national levels who are all becoming more and more consistent and vocal regarding the fast pace with which things are improving and all seemingly emphasizing that, even with public health metric measures being of concern, schools are able to open and operate safely – some experts even denoting that our schools are safer than our private homes.  

Shared Concerns

We cannot ignore, however, that the disease and its impact continue to impact so many in so many negative ways.  Yes, the vaccines have become the proverbial light at the end of our long tunnel.  But the impression that all school staff are already wholly protected through COVID-19 vaccinations and should therefore be less concerned about returning to in-person learning would be an unfair one to glean. We still have some distance to go in our vaccinations after local stumbles.  We all hoped that we would be further along in vaccinations by this point, but the process has been slower than anticipated, and we must appreciate that many remain very anxious about vaccination progress.

Vaccinations

We are currently conducting an employee survey to gauge staff access to vaccinations. While it is ongoing, the data currently shows that about 60 percent of our certified staff (which includes teachers) have had or are scheduled to have their first vaccination in the near future. The number is lower for support staff (which includes other school employees, bus drivers, office staff, District staff, etc.). About 35 percent of those employees have received or are scheduled for vaccinations soon. We anticipate sharing more information about this survey at next week’s Governing Board meeting as well.

Please also note that while one vaccination does provide some significant protection, a second dose is necessary to get to the high effective rates we have all read about. Studies have shown that the immunity protection takes about two weeks to process in the human body. That means that the full protection kicks in at least two weeks after the second shot.

That being said, the director of the Centers for Disease Control recently said that full vaccination status is not necessary to safely open schools.

Shared Commitment

What is necessary to safely reopen schools is the vigilant and continuing practice of protective health and safety measures which effectively impedes community spread, reduces strains on hospitals and health resources, and provides the opportunity to regain normalcy in our lives.

Our 10 weeks in hybrid mode this past fall bear this out. We had very little spread in schools throughout that period of time. Amphitheater instituted consistent safety protocols District-wide, and our schools undertook significant changes and efforts on their individual campuses to keep students and staff safe. Our efforts in these respects helped us earn the Pima County Ready for You certification, a designation that recognizes that we have appropriate safety procedures in place. Additionally, we are asking everyone in the Amphitheater community to do their part to help us stay open and, hopefully, open more fully:

  • Stay at least 6 feet apart from others at all times
  • Wear a mask
  • Wash your hands
  • Don’t touch your face
  • Get a vaccine if you are eligible and are able
  • Stay home if you are sick or have any COVID-like symptoms.

Thank you, families and staff, for doing all you can to support our students, our community and to support each other. We often speak in terms of what we will do when the pandemic is over. Alas, it seems that an end is not in sight, but we can all definitely see better times ahead on the horizon, and that gives me hope for continued steps to normalcy – or at the very least a happier “new normal”.

I wish you all good health as we continue to take care of one another.

Thank you,

Todd A. Jaeger, J.D.
Superintendent

January 22, 2021 (Español)

Dear Amphitheater Employees and Families:

When we made the decision to open in the Remote by Necessity model after Winter Break, the COVID-19 rate for Pima County was approximately 600 positive cases per 100,000 people. Today, Pima County Health announced that the number is 835 per 100,000. Clearly, our case rate is heading in a most negative direction. Indeed, most of the county and state metrics are similarly disappointing.

Also disappointing has been access to vaccines for our teachers and staff. While we had anticipated seeing large numbers of our employees with their sleeves rolled up getting a much-anticipated vaccine starting this week, that has not materialized. For this week, the county originally allotted 190 vaccine appointments for our 1,900 employees. So far, they have been able to schedule about 70 of our staff for vaccinations. We hope that the county can speed this process in the coming weeks, but logistical and supply issues may interfere.

At this point, given the current high spread of COVID-19 and the limitations of the vaccine program, I can see no path to safely opening on Feb. 1 as planned. While I know that other schools and districts have made different decisions, I have said from the outset of this pandemic that I would look to our state and local health officials and data to inform my decisions. The State of Arizona Department of Health Services, as of yesterday, is currently recommending that schools in every county in the state remain in virtual learning: https://www.azdhs.gov/preparedness/epidemiology-disease-control/infectious-disease-epidemiology/index.php#novel-coronavirus-schools. While I firmly believe that our students need to be in school, I cannot turn a blind eye to the weight of all that is happening or to what medical and public health experts are advising.

So what can change? How can we get to a place where we can confidently send our teachers, staff and students back to school in person? We need the positivity rate to decrease from its most recent level of nearly 22 percent. Health officials are hopeful they will see movement in that direction in the next two weeks, as we clear the spike from the holidays. Accordingly, based on this projection, we will now plan for February 15 as our new hybrid model reopening date.

This won’t satisfy those of you who want us to open now, and it won’t satisfy those of you who want us to remain closed for the quarter or longer. We hear from you in equal numbers, and we understand the arguments for both.

Make no mistake: we want to open schools; we need to open schools; and we will open schools.  But, we can only do so when the decision is supported by the data and our health experts.  It is my job to carefully balance the health, safety, and educational needs of our entire district community, and as difficult as it can be in these times, I am still proud and blessed to do it.

Thank you,

Todd A. Jaeger, J.D.

 

January 20, 2021 (Español)

Dear Amphitheater Employees and Families:

The Amphitheater School District has been committed to following the guidance of the Pima County Health Department regarding the safest models for educating our children since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have also committed to giving two weeks’ notice for any change to our education model when possible. In my last update, the target for opening in the hybrid model was Feb.1. We are still hoping to be able to open safely on that date, but the county will not be ready to provide guidance until after they receive updated data on Thursday. It is my goal to announce a decision on whether we will stay in Remote by Necessity or open in the hybrid model by Friday.

When health officials evaluate data, they look not just at the countywide metrics but also data that specifically relates to the overall well-being of children and staff. If we were to make a decision today, we would find that health officials do not recommend in-person learning anywhere in the state. We are hoping that the data that comes in Thursday is more positive. We know that children need to be in school, and our goal is to get them back in classrooms safely and to ensure we continue to adhere to safety measures for our staff as well.

It seems that there is no end to the frustration and difficult decision-making brought upon us by this pandemic. I ask for your patience and understanding as we continue to evaluate the COVID situation and work with health officials to ensure we can move forward safely,

Thank you,

Todd A. Jaeger, J.D.

 

Jan. 4, 2021 (Español)

Dear Amphitheater Family:

Pima County Health officials have informed us that COVID-19 conditions in the county are expected to worsen over the next few weeks. It is expected that disease metrics will grow well beyond their current levels, which are already more than double what they were before our Winter Break began.

From the beginning of this pandemic, we have remained committed to ensuring that our decisions would be primarily based upon the safety and well-being of students and staff.  We have also been committed to ensuring that all members of the District community have two weeks’ notice of any change in our learning plan to allow those affected to make appropriate plans. 

With both of these considerations in mind, I must announce today that we will not be able to return to hybrid learning on January 19 as hoped. While our ultimate goal is to return to the restoration of normal instruction as soon as possible, I must acknowledge that current data and projections compel an extension of remote learning until Feb. 1, when we hope our community’s health circumstances have improved.

Some specifics on the data:

  • The State of Arizona’s infection rate is 648 cases per 100,000 in population. In Pima County, that number is even worse (756 cases per 100,000).  Unfortunately, health officials anticipate that this number will rise. When we made the decision to return to remote for the New Year, the rate was about 350 cases per 100,000, nearly half the number of cases the county reports now.

  • In Pima County, the rate of individuals testing positive for the virus is 18.9 percent, the highest rate ever. This exceeds the statewide number of 17.5 percent (a slight decline from the prior week). For reference, a rate of 10 percent or more is considered to be of significant concern.

  • The one data bright spot is that our hospitalization rate of individuals with COVID-like symptoms has declined a bit in the last week -- now at 13.2 percent, down from 14.3 percent. Still, anything over 10 percent is considered to be a significant concern.

We will continue to work with the Pima County Health Department to monitor the COVID-19 situation and will make the decision to reopen in-person learning when it is safe to do so. Whenever possible, we will continue to provide our families and employees with two weeks’ notice of any change in instructional mode. We know that is important.

In the meantime, and as long as it’s necessary, it is our deepest hope each member of our community will do their part so that we can reopen schools safely and provide our students with the support and education they deserve.

Please protect yourself and protect others: Wear a mask, stay at least 6 feet apart from others, wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and stay home if you are sick.

 

Thank you,

Todd A. Jaeger, J.D.