“This whole school year feels like one big experiment we’re running on our community, and I don’t trust the people running the experiment.”
In Arizona, some parents and students cheered when certain school districts decided to try to reopen classrooms Monday despite not yet meeting the state’s COVID-19 benchmarks.
But in one district, teachers concerned about their safety took back control.
J.O. Combs Unified School District in Pinal County canceled its planned reopening Monday after an overwhelming number of staff said they planned to be absent. The district’s board will stay closed through Wednesday and meet that night to discuss moving forward.
While the Queen Creek Unified School District did still open its doors, it still has seen dozens of teacher resignations over the summer months.
Dawn Oliphant, president of the Queen Creek High School’s Parent Teacher Organization, was among a few parents greeting a line of cars and school buses carrying staff and students with signs of support.
Neither she nor her two sons, a senior and a sophomore, were nervous. “As far as feeling safe, they’re fine,” Oliphant said. “We’ve gone over their protocols with them. They have their hand sanitizer with them. They know how important it is to wear their face coverings.”
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But while parents and students may have felt confident, some teachers felt like they were dropped into a pandemic petri dish with little protection.
As of the end of last week, three teachers in those districts told The Copper Courier the little supplies they were given included one bottle of cleaning spray each and a small number of face coverings. Other supplies like rags and thermometers had yet to materialize for some of them.
Despite some supplies still being backordered and the country being above the state’s virus thresholds, the school board in Queen Creek, about 40 miles southeast of Phoenix, voted last week to offer in-person instruction full-time.
Jacob Frantz, a chemistry teacher at the high school, resigned soon after the vote. Frantz, 30, said the decision was agonizing but he couldn’t physically bring himself to teach in a classroom with the same number of students as usual.
“This whole school year feels like one big experiment we’re running on our community and I don’t trust the people running the experiment,” said Frantz, who is president of the Queen Creek Education Association. “We are guaranteed statistically to have people infected on that campus right now.”
Frantz told The Copper Courier he knows of at least 43 teachers in the district who have resigned.
Stephanie Ingersoll, a spokeswoman for the district, said media reports have inaccurately reported the number of teachers resigning. She said “a small number” gave notice after the school board vote.
Michael and Ashleigh Bayard said it won’t bother them if their son, a sophomore, has to be taught by substitutes in some classes because of teacher resignations.
“They’re going to learn more from a substitute in school than they’re gonna learn sitting in front of a computer screen,” Ashleigh Bayard said.
The parents, however, said they do sympathize with teachers with underlying health conditions who felt they had to walk away.
“They have to make the decision that’s best for them and their family,” Oliphant said. “I don’t hold anything against them.”
Frantz said he’s especially worried about his colleagues who have no choice but to keep teaching.
“We have single moms who can’t leave their job,” Frantz said. “They’re high risk but they can’t leave their health insurance. They can’t pay the $2,000 (district) penalty to leave their contract.”
Teachers who end their contract early also lose their health insurance during a pandemic and risk having their certificates revoked.
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Arizona officials reported an additional 915 cases of the coronavirus and 23 deaths on Tuesday. Since the pandemic began, Arizona has reported more than 194,000 cases of the virus and 4,529 deaths.
But while new cases have gone down, so has testing. The state health department dashboard shows about 10,000 tests being administered daily in recent days. In early July there were several days with more than 20,000 people being tested.
COVID-19 related hospitalizations and ventilator use also continued to trend downward. Those numbers peaked about a month ago following Gov. Doug Ducey’s lifting of stay-home orders in May.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.