CASA GRANDE — The first day of school at Saguaro Elementary and Casa Grande Middle School brought hundreds of kids, parents and staff to campus as well as one very special guest from Phoenix.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman decided to make the joint campus in the Casa Grande Elementary School District her first stop on a planned tour around the region to visit schools on their first day.

“We are so eager and excited,” said district Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales. “We are hoping for a year that is much more normal than we had last year or the year before. It’s definitely an honor to have Ms. Hoffman visit and I think it is really special for teachers, staff and students to know that someone outside CG cares.”

Hoffman, who began her career as a preschool teacher, said that she fondly recalls the beginning of school as a time when she focused on getting to know the hopes and goals of her students, and that it was wonderful to see families and kids back in person for the new school year.

Hoffman said she thought the campus was beautifully decorated and that CGESD had created a warm and welcoming environment, though students at both schools seemed a bit nervous.

According to Hoffman, one of the Arizona Department of Education’s major priorities is to help facilitate districts’ return to prepandemic enrollment levels. Hoffman also believes the nearly $4 billion in federal America Rescue Plan Act funding for state schools will have a huge impact in the near term.

As the situation with COVID-19 and its variants continues to haunt plans for a normal year, Hoffman expressed disappointment that educators’ hands are tied by new laws put in place by state lawmakers that impact their ability to make and enforce health recommendations.

Earlier this month, Hoffman pushed back against Gov. Doug Ducey’s prohibition on quarantining unvaccinated individuals, calling it “beyond frustrating” in a statement and accusing Ducey of using public schools as a “leverage point in the governor’s political conversation that has nothing to do with science or public health.”

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends that those who are unvaccinated quarantine for 14 days after exposure to someone with COVID-19.

Gonzales noted that several CGESD teachers had already tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantining; the schools are using substitutes for the time being.

This year is also the first time that the student body at many schools will include vaccinated and unvaccinated, masked and unmasked. Hoffman said it was too soon to know how that dynamic would play out in terms of how students treat one another.

The other two schools Hoffman plans to visit are Laveen Elementary: School of Global Studies/Trailside Point and Academia del Pueblo, both in Phoenix. Those two campuses start their school year next week.

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Aaron Dorman is the Casa Grande reporter at PinalCentral, covering government, schools, business and more. He can be reached at adorman@pinalcentral.com.