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FLORENCE — In response to high teacher absences, the Florence Unified School District board voted Tuesday night to return the district’s 10,000 students in San Tan Valley and Florence to online or “virtual” learning only for the rest of the month beginning Thursday.

The board will meet on Jan. 26 to review the health metrics and decide whether to continue virtual learning; change to a “hybrid” model (in which the student body splits into two groups that are in the building on different days); or return to in-person learning on Feb. 1.

School board President Denise Guenther questioned the value of making decisions based on Pinal County’s health metrics. She noted the district had just returned last week from a three-week winter break to find “the county metrics did not change. Closing schools did not bring those down.” Being out for two more weeks won’t improve Pinal County’s numbers, she said.

On the other hand, “We have data now to show that the spread within the schools is very low,” Guenther said. But she did agree there was a staffing problem, “and we cannot adequately serve our children.”

In the past week and a half, “the district has faced an overwhelming challenge in appropriately staffing schools,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the board Tuesday. “Due to the high number of exposures, isolations and quarantines, schools have been faced with staffing shortages that are beyond the district’s capacity to adequately fill.”

Some schools have had as much as one-third of teachers absent on a given day, and district-wide, less than half of teacher absences can be filled with substitutes.

Superintendent Chris Knutsen said he would make a recommendation to the board on Jan. 26. He said a top epidemiologist had told a meeting of Arizona school administrators the previous day that the next two weeks are going to be the worst of the pandemic.

“If that’s true, that’s not OK. That’s why I recommend that we just put the stop on for two weeks and let’s reassess,” Knutsen told the board.

Guenther asked for teachers and parents to accurately report cases while the buildings are closed.

“If you are choosing not to come back because that’s what you would like to do, it needs to state that,” she said. “Please be clear as to if you are quarantining because of an exposure or a positive test result.”

Several teachers spoke and disagreed on whether the buildings should close again. A Poston Butte teacher said his elementary-school daughters were “extremely stressed-out” by online school. But another told the board the buildings should already be closed.

“We are in school against the advice of the experts we were told to trust. Trust the experts, vote to keep your word, vote to follow the metrics,” she said.

“Last week over 100 teachers and staff signed a letter pleading with the district to go virtual for at least two weeks, and to return to the original health department metrics that were agreed upon,” another teacher said. “A substantial number of teachers and students were out last week,” he continued. He asked why there was no emergency board meeting at the time. “Why all the chaos as kids and staff kept getting sick?” the teacher asked.

Leckie told the board that FUSD has always prioritized in-person instruction as the best way for students to learn. FUSD parents evidently agree, with 80% opting for their children to return in-person, he said. More than 700 students recently left online instruction with Florence Virtual Academy to return to their regular neighborhood schools, Leckie said.

“We know that online learning, when done well, can meet the needs of many students but does not adequately replace in-person instruction, particularly for students in vulnerable populations,” Leckie told the board.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.