The J.O. Combs Unified School District, located in the Phoenix metropolitan area’s southeastern outskirts, said in a letter to families that it had to cancel all in-person and online classes originally scheduled for Monday “due to insufficient staffing levels.”
“We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students,” Superintendent Dr. Gregory Wyman wrote. “In response, we have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns.”
The 109 Combs teachers and staff who called in sick account for nearly 20 percent of the district’s 600-member staff, reported The Arizona Republic, citing a district spokesperson.
“At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume,” Wyman wrote, adding that despite the situation, breakfast and lunch services will still be available to elementary students who wish to pick up their meals at school.
The Combs board of education decided in a 3-2 vote last week to reopen school buildings for in-person learning. Wyman explained in an earlier statement that the decision was based on the data benchmarks released by Arizona’s health department, as well as “tremendous feedback” from families who “expressed a strong need for their children to return to the classroom.”
The Arizona Department of Health Services unveiled three benchmarks to guide school reopening. Schools are recommended to reopen in a limited capacity when their county’s rate of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people drops below 100 per week for two weeks or observes a two-week consecutive decline in cases. The percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 within their county must also fall below 7, and the percentage of hospital visits caused by COVID-like illness must fall below 10 for two weeks.
The Arizona Education Association, which represents some 20,000 public school employees across the state, have fought against plans to reopen schools for in-person learning over the past weeks, arguing that returning to classrooms will putting teachers’ health in jeopardy.
“In-person instruction should be delayed until at least the end of the first nine-weeks of the school calendar,” the teachers’ union said in a statement. “To maintain supports for students and our community during this pandemic, districts shall receive at least the same level of federal, state, and local funding as they did the previous year.”