Republicans in the House and Senate have filed legislation to allow teachers to educate their students in “alternative” formats as schools grapple with statewide closures in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It’s the latest attempt at passing emergency measures to provide short-term certainty to government entities and citizens as the legislature contemplates suspending the session for a period of weeks or longer to mitigate the spread of the virus.
If schools don’t reopen by the end of March, the bill waives statutory instruction hour requirements provided schools can offer instruction in an “alternative format” of their choice. Doing this secures their state funding, which is contingent on students being in class for a certain number of days each year.
In short, should the bill pass, schools will not be forced to elongate the school year in order to make up for the instructional time lost since Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman announced indefinite statewide school closures on March 15.
“Every district and school will have flexibility in how they continue to offer educational instruction to their students,” said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, who authored the Senate version of the bill.
Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who’s carrying the House version, could not be reached for comment in time for publication.
The bill has two contingency clauses. If schools reopen by the end of March, the bill waives instructional hour requirements and extends the window to administer the state’s standardized test until May 31. All school employees, hourly or otherwise, will receive pay for the duration of the closure, and schools can use the higher of their letter grades from either the 2018-2019 or 2019-2020 school years.
The meat of the bill addresses the alternate situation, in which schools stay closed past March and into the indeterminate future. In that scenario, schools can hold onto their funding if they provide instruction in an alternate format. Teachers and staff would continue to receive pay if they carry out their duties remotely or accept another assignment .
State standardized tests would be canceled, and school letter grades would be held harmless, along with transportation funding.
The legislation doesn’t lay out what this alternative instruction might look like, only directing that the state board of education and Department of Education come up with a way for schools to attest that they’re still delivering a proper education.
One example Allen provided is the Heber-Overgaard school district in her Northern Arizona legislative District. Many students live in outlying areas and don’t have reliable internet access, so the school is bringing educational materials to its students.
“They’re helping put together packets for every child, and the bus drivers are out delivering them to the outlying areas, then they pick them up,” Allen said. “They help deliver lunch. Everybody is helping the teachers, check things and grade those. So that’s one possibility. Another is you can have online instruction. “
It’s for this reason that some Democrats have taken to dubbing the legislation the Primavera bill, a reference to the online high school that operates in Arizona. But the derision doesn’t mean they won’t back the proposal.
Rep. Reginald Bolding of Laveen, the top Democrat on the House Education committee, said he recognizes the need for emergency legislation that provides guidance for schools in a time of uncertainty and angst. He’s just worried about the ambition to forgo the committee process and pass the bill by the end of the week, by which time Republican leadership hopes to suspend the session.
“We have to make sure we’re measured and we have to make sure we have stakeholders on board,” he said. “The idea that we’re going to craft policy over the next two or three days that’s going to affect everyone in the state, it’s important that teachers get to see, as well as parents.”
While Bolding said he was in the dark during development of the bill, that appears to be more of a symptom of partisan politics, as school officials have been privy to the plan for a handful of days.
“We were involved with discussions with the department and the governor’s office, and I think the members were involved in at least one of those discussions,” said Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Board Association. “A lot of the concerns we had do appear to be addressed.”
Ditto for the Education Department.
“Allen and Udall were part of our stakeholders meeting on Monday and we see a lot reflected in this proposal that addresses the concerns voiced by the education community,” said department spokesman Richie Taylor in a text.
Senate President Karen Fann hoped to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a debate and possible vote on Wednesday evening. But after Democrats in the Senate told her they weren’t ready to vote for it, she instead adjourned the chamber.
The bill could come up for debate and votes in both the House and Senate on Thursday.
“We need to do something soon,” Kotterman said. “People will feel a lot better once they know what’s going to happen with their local schools and their children. From a PR perspective, It would do the state some good to get something on the books.”