"At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume," the J.O. Combs Unified School District wrote in a letter

By Joelle Goldstein
August 17, 2020 01:02 PM
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J.O. Combs Unified School District

A school district in Arizona was forced to delay its reopening this week after teachers protested in-person classes amid the coronavirus pandemic by refusing to show up.

In a letter to the community's families on Monday, Superintendent Dr. Gregory A. Wyman of the J.O. Combs Unified School District in San Tan Valley announced that all classes, including virtual instruction, would be canceled, citing "insufficient staffing levels."

Wyman explained in the letter that the "high volume of staff absences" were due to health and safety concerns amid the pandemic, which has recently worsened in Arizona, and that it was currently unclear when in-person classes would resume.

"In response to this week’s Governing Board decision to resume in-person instruction on Monday, we have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students," Wyman wrote. "At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume."

"We will continue to monitor the situation and will share an update no later than 5:00 pm on Monday," Wyman continued. "Please know that we are acutely aware of how polarizing this issue is, and how challenging these ongoing developments are for our entire community."

"We will continue to work closely with our employees and our families to develop solutions that provide a safe and healthy return to school," he added.

According to AZFamily.com, more than 100 staff members called out on Monday — just one week after Wyman made a recommendation to the district's School Governing Board to continue virtual learning for the remainder of the first quarter.

The School Board denied the recommendation by a 3-2 vote, opting to reopen campuses and in-person instruction starting Aug. 17.

In response to the decision, the school district's staff issued a letter on Sunday voicing their concerns and arguing that the choice to reopen was made despite Pinal County not meeting state metrics set by the Arizona Department of Health.

The Arizona Department of Health Services currently recommends three benchmarks — cases, percent positivity and COVID-like illness — must be in the moderate or minimal transmission category for two weeks in order to offer hybrid learning safely.

Pinal County, however, only meets two out of three benchmarks, according to the most recent ADHS report.

"The metrics are based on the mitigation of the spread of COVID-19; until these metrics are met, the risk of infection is too high," the teachers wrote in the letter.

The staff also argued in the note that the schools did not have proper sanitization supplies, in part due to backorders, and were unclear about their procedures for welcoming students back and "on COVID-19 policies" such as sanitization.

They concluded the letter by demanding that all three metrics are met before resuming in-person classes, adequate PPE and sanitation supplies are maintained in the schools and that instruction and training on how to utilize the PPE and sanitization supplies is offered.

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After classes were canceled on Monday, parents spoke out about the reopening dilemma and how it was affecting both the teachers and the students in their lives.

Lila Gonzalez, a parent and former teacher of the district, told AZFamily.com she supported the staff members' decision.

"I was proud of them because they do have to have a voice. Teachers are in a position to have a voice, and they just weren't being heard," Gonzalez said. "They have been in tears. This has not been easy for them. I have had friends who are just crying, losing sleep. You can see it on their faces."

Meanwhile, parent Amber Bachmeier told the outlet that the delay was taking a toll on her young daughter, who is entering third grade.

"To see your 7-year-old cry because she is stressed out and doesn't understand how to do something, it is sad to watch," Bachmeier said.

As of Monday afternoon, there have been at least 194,009 cases and 4,509 deaths attributed to coronavirus in Arizona, according to The New York Times. In Pinal County, at least 8,777 cases and 169 deaths have been reported.

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