Elgin 4th grade teacher Angela Brown prepares her classroom for the beginning of the school year. “We’re ready,” she said. “We’re a big family. We all miss each other.” Photo by Marion Vendituoli

 As of July 29, Patagonia Schools will begin school online on August 17, with distance learning for at least the first month. Elgin Schools begin online 

August 10, moving on campus August 17. Patagonia Montessori School plans to begin the year on campus August 17. Principals of all three systems acknowledge plans may change, depending on the severity of the virus in the community and any state mandates. Each school will allow parents to choose to keep their children home if and when classes move on-campus. 

At a July 23 press conference, Governor Ducey and State Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman announced that local districts can determine when and how they will start the school year, with the state offering guidance as to the data to be used in making those decisions. Unfortunately, that guidance will not be available until August 7, only a few days before some districts’ planned first day of school. Many schools now are making their plans based on the information they have on hand.

Leaders on both the state and local levels lean towards flexible planning, which Hoffman said is more durable than mandating one start date and one delivery model. They believe plans will change over the course of the year as Arizona grapples with surges of the virus, and there is a strong possiblity that many students will spend part of the year in distance learning.

The state is requiring that districts provide an onsite option for certain students, even if the school is in a full distance learning model. Students whose parents cannot supervise them at home due to their work or students with other special needs will be provided a safe place to engage in distance learning. 

Patagonia Supt. Kenny Hayes said that after starting the year online, the school will watch the trends in COVID19 cases. After there has been a 14-day decline, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control, they will begin plans to open campus. On-campus options range from smaller groups of students attending in person on alternating days to full campus opening. Onsite learning for students who need a supervised place to participate in distance learning will always be an option. Some special education students may begin the year working in the Resource Room, following the online curriculum with help from special ed staff. In all cases, safe procedures, including frequent handwashing, masks, distancing and strict check-in and pickup procedures will be followed.

Elvia Gallagher, a 4th-grade teacher at Patagonia Elementary, said “At the meeting to decide how to proceed, my colleagues and I expressed our concerns about going back without good data to support that move. When things look better, we can make the decision to go back.” 

As to working with students online, she said, “I feel lucky we had a chance to dip our toes into distance learning last spring. We are much better prepared now. And I hope families will be understanding. I know it’s frustrating, but I hope they are patient and work with the school system through this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Be my partners – make sure to use the hotspots if you need to, access the Chrome-books the schools are providing, help your children succeed.”

Jennifer Myers has two children at Patagonia Elementary School (PES). “We’re very torn about school reopening! I know our kids miss their friends and need to be in a social environment similar to school…and would love more than anything to have them go back,” said Myers. “However, we have two immune-compromised kids as well as a new baby, so we don’t want to risk exposing our family while the numbers are still on the rise.” They have decided to opt for distance learning, even if campus opens. 

Elgin School Principal Mary Faley welcomes the meetings she and other leaders have held, and will be holding, with the County Health Director throughout the year. “We know the importance of kids being in the classroom with their teachers and each other. The virus seems to disproportionately affect those who are older and/or have underlying health issues – that comprises some of our staff.”

“We have designed our distance learning program so it mirrors what is going on in the classroom. Much of the curriculum adopted has online components already. So, we hope we can transition back and forth between online and on-campus easily. And our classes are so small that we will have an easier time distancing.”

Kelly Bostock, Sonoita School District Board member and parent of a middle school student at Elgin, is concerned about attendance and participation in distance learning. She said, “I never could have imagined that we would be in this position going back to school. I thought things would be resolved. Some people are ready to send their kids back and some teachers worry about contracting COVID19. It’s really put us in a tricky spot. I just hope the issue doesn’t become politically driven, as we would hate to lose Elgin students on that basis.”

Callie Mattus, Elgin 2nd grade teacher, spoke about the skills she gained from the weeklong ASU distance learning training program that all Elgin teachers participated in. “It was intense engagement with other educators and experts in distance learning. I feel better equipped with the resources and tools available, should we end in long-term distance learning. I learned from others’ experience and practiced using the programs. I believe I have more tools to keep kids engaged. This experience will change how we use technology on-campus as well, going forward. And I have new tools to communicate with parents, and work with them as partners.”

Anthony Fennell, father of an Elgin 2nd grader, hopes this year is as close to a normal school year as possible. “If school is open, we will send our daughter to 2nd grade. There’s so much that’s important about school besides the academic, like the teacher-child relationship and learning to get along the world. We can see it’s a tough decision for districts and families. While we are not that concerned, I respect people who are afraid, and I respect their right to choose what is best for their family.”

At the Patagonia Montessori School, Principal Jessi Beebe has overseen preparations including installation of HEPA H13 air filtration system and multiple handwashing stations, and seating students at individual desks as opposed to several around a table. As at the other schools, students will learn and practice strict COVID19 protocols right out of the gate.

In the event of a move to distance learning, the Montessori teachers will conduct direct instruction and individual sessions with students via Zoom. Parents can elect distance learning even if onsite school is in session. Those students will have ongoing access to a teacher or a peer for help or collaboration throughout the day, in addition to participating in at least two hours a day of virtual lessons. 

With only ten to twelve students in a classroom, Beebe hopes they can have students at the school. “Especially at the younger grades, the Montessori method relies on hands-on materials and regular interaction with the teacher.”

“While we plan to start on campus, any one of our three options will be based on what is happening at the time,” she said. “It makes it really hard for parents who are wondering what their children will be doing all year. Many have to work. They want to be able to count on something, and we totally understand that. It is difficult for us to say that we can’t give them that assurance for the entire year at this point.”