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Florence parents, officials vent about prolonged school closure

FLORENCE — Parents expressed frustration to the Florence Unified School District Governing Board about their children’s difficulties with distance learning, and school officials conveyed some of their own exasperation with the “moving target” leadership they receive from the state at last week’s board meeting.

Superintendent Chris Knutsen said the district has already demonstrated it can operate safely. He noted the district held in-person graduation exercises, followed by a track meet in June with 500 athletes from across the country at Poston Butte High School. The district followed up with participants to make sure no one became ill. “So that pretty much tells you how I feel about this.”

He said the state has issued benchmarks for when students can safely return to regular classes, including a two-week decline in COVID-19 cases and less than 7% of people tested having positive results for the virus.

“Every one of us needs to go and get a COVID test in the next four weeks — everyone … and maybe we can drive that number down,” Knutsen told those in attendance at the Aug. 11 meeting. He further commented on why the board was asked to vote on a return to regular classes no sooner than Oct. 5.

“Here’s why: We have had this moving target for the last four months” on when students might be able to return to school. Knutsen said the administrative team tries to plan for a return to school, then “the rug gets pulled out, the target moves, and we’re back to square one. This has been a process we’ve gone through for the last four months.

“People haven’t had vacations,” Knutsen continued. “We don’t need vacations. But the point I want to make is Oct. 5 is a date we really want to push.” He said the district has surveyed its teachers, and 90% want to come back to regular classes Oct. 5, and 60% want to come back sooner than that. Administrators also need about six weeks to build a master schedule for each high school before students return in-person, he said.

Board President Denise Guenther said some people seem to be confused about the board’s role in school being closed.

“The board did not decide to close schools; that was the state government,” she said. “The board cannot just decide now to reopen the schools. We are trying to follow the data that we are provided; we are not health officials, we don’t have the right answer. We have to follow the best we can with what we are given.

“Do I think the state has lacked in their ability to give that to us in a timely manner? I absolutely do,” Guenther continued. “They have continuously told us, ‘Here’s this data,’ they dangle it like a carrot and we all get excited, ‘Yes, we’re going back, we’re going back,’ and they take it away from us again."

She said she understands how families have had to readjust their lives. “I think we take our careers and our jobs based on when our kids are in school, so that we can be at home with them at a later time. … I get the struggle, I understand that.”

She said it’s not that the board isn’t making a decision, but “we aren’t given the data that we need to make that decision completely.”

Parents also had a lot to say at last week’s meeting. One mother said if regular classes aren’t back until Oct. 5, “I don’t think I can last that long.” She said Google Meet can’t handle the traffic; her sixth grade daughter, who normally makes straight A’s, regularly calls her at work in tears, and her second grade son isn’t on task. She said she’s forced to choose between working to pay the bills or being at home to help her children get their education.

Six other parents also spoke, and most reported their own problems with distance learning. One said there are “a lot of issues with Google Classroom that no one is talking about,” including the program being hacked and displaying pornography. She said her son’s teacher recently got locked out of her own virtual classroom for 40 minutes.

Another mother said her special needs kindergarten student isn’t getting what she needs, and her 12-year-old son is on medication for depression. “It’s not working,” she said.

Schools reopen on limited basis

FLORENCE — Schools were to reopen this week on a limited basis for students who need tech support or merely some supervision as they do their school work.

The Florence Unified School District governing board voted Aug. 11 to reopen buildings for everyone no sooner than Oct. 5, which is the day students would normally be returning from fall break. FUSD planned to contact parents this week to ask them to choose by Aug. 28th whether they want their children to return in person on Oct. 5 or continue to study at home via the district’s Florence Virtual Academy.

But starting this week, a limited number of students can come to school.

“What we’re calling them is Internet Opportunity Zones,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the school board. He said this isn’t instruction, but places at each school site where students can sign up to go during school hours to access the internet and be socially-distanced and supervised. Students can receive basic tech support if they need it, and complete their coursework with their teachers through Google Meets.

He said these areas would most likely be set up in cafeterias and gyms. Students may also eat breakfast and lunch at school of they wish. The district can’t provide transportation in this case, and there’s a capacity limit to ensure social distancing. “But it’s an option to provide some relief to families that are struggling,” Leckie said.

He said FUSD personnel are also working to identify the most at-risk students who are not benefiting from online instruction, whether it’s due to a disability or being an English language-learner. The district puts out “frequently-asked-questions” videos every Friday.

Face coverings required

In other business last week, the board voted to require all staff and students over the age of 5 to wear face coverings until the Arizona Department of Health Services determines face coverings are no longer necessary or recommended. Specifically:

  • All staff and students will be required to wear cloth face coverings while on any school campus or district property including buses and school vehicles;
  • Staff or students with documented health conditions or educational reasons can request clear face shields in place of cloth face masks;
  • Face coverings are not to be worn during outside recess times;
  • Face coverings are not required when students can physically distance eight feet or more;
  • Face coverings should not be worn by anyone under the age of 2 or by anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask;
  • All students will be given periodic breaks where they can remove their face coverings throughout the school day in a space that is physically distant from others;
  • The district will provide information to families on face-covering guidelines and the importance of wearing face coverings when not able to physically distance.

Pinal County school officials have vetted FUSD’s “Return to Learn” plan and have provided feedback for when in-person instruction resumes, Leckie told the school board. “They did comment that ours was one of the most comprehensive that they’ve seen and they were very happy with the job we did as a task force.”

FUSD continues to work on a “pre-contact-tracing protocol” in case of an outbreak. The county will do the actual contact tracing, but FUSD will be prepared to provide information to expedite the process “and hopefully, make sure we don’t have to close down classrooms or schools at any point,” Leckie told the board.

A single confirmed case could lead to closing a school, if that’s what the school board and county health department determine. Or if it can be isolated to certain classrooms, those rooms could shift to online instruction and return to in-person instruction when it’s safe to do so “without skipping a beat.”

In the meantime, Leckie said staff and students are working hard to make the most of learning at home. He told the board that Arizona school districts were required to begin school on time with distance learning. On average, FUSD is seeing about 95% attendance, which is similar to what it would be seeing in-person, he said. “Our tech team did an amazing job of distributing almost 7,000 devices to students.” There are almost 10,000 students in the district.

“We are reporting good engagement and learning with kids. I was able to pop in to classrooms periodically the first few days, and saw a kid connecting with their friends, connecting to their teachers. It was encouraging to see,” Leckie said.

“A lot of our teachers have been extremely creative in ways to engage their students online. This is really new for everybody, so there’s definitely a learning curve for parents, for students and for teachers, and us as administrators, to be able to support online learning in the comprehensive way our district is doing now. … But we know there are struggles, there are challenges.

“Our goal is to listen and support families through this time,” Leckie said. “We know it’s temporary. We know that every single one of us in this room wants our kids back in school in person. So we’re trying to balance health and safety with really engaging our kids in ongoing learning and instruction.”

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Florence accounts for 12% of Arizona's new COVID-19 cases after record increase

FLORENCE — A Pinal County ZIP code saw a jump in COVID-19 cases Tuesday the likes of which have not been seen since the statewide surge in July.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 113 new cases in Florence’s 85132 ZIP code on Tuesday. This is the largest single-day jump that any Pinal County ZIP code has seen during this pandemic. The jump also led to the Florence area crossing the 1,000-case mark with a total of 1,081, only the third ZIP code to do so after one in Casa Grande and one in the San Tan Valley/Queen Creek area.

Florence’s jump makes up a large majority of new cases reported in Pinal County Tuesday, which was at 158 for a total of 8,935. There were also two new deaths reported in Pinal, bringing the total to 171.

In fact, with only 915 new cases reported statewide, Florence represented 12.3% of new cases in all of Arizona. The state’s total is now at 194,920, and 23 newly reported deaths brings that total to 4,529.

As always, it is unclear how much of Florence’s jump is coming from the prison complexes, as that is not revealed by the state.

Council mulls offering COVID-related aid to businesses

FLORENCE — Town staff are developing a proposal for using a portion of the town’s CARES Act funds to help local businesses that’ve been hurt by the pandemic and hope to present a program for the Town Council’s approval on Sept. 8.

Residents can provide input on how the town should use the money — federal funds to compensate for expenses related to COVID-19 — by sending their comments to Ben Bitter (, Roger Biede ( or a Town Council member in advance of a council work session on Aug. 31.

The town is receiving $3.1 million. To receive the funds, Florence submitted payroll costs and projects from March 1 through the end of this calendar year. Bitter said the town’s public safety expenses during this time justified the reimbursement to the General Fund.

Town staff’s recommendation is that the town use some of the money to support local businesses’ public health efforts, Bitter, the town’s intergovernmental and communications manager, told the council Aug. 10.

“Public health is clearly a government function, it is something we are assigned to do,” so the town should be on secure legal footing to support programs that promote public health, Bitter said. The town would make grants to local businesses to compensate them for their expenses related to enhanced sanitation, health and safety.

Businesses may also apply for reimbursement of utility expenses during the state’s stay-home order in the months of March, April and May. Town staff recommended grants of up to $10,000 per business, for a total of up to $300,000. The town can also use some of that money.

“We, as the result of COVID, have had a lot of increased expenses; we’ve had to change the way we do business,” Bitter told the council. He noted the town had to close town facilities to the public and had many increased expenses and revenue losses, including technology and technology upgrades; personal protective equipment; business license fee waivers; overtime; employee leave; event cancellations; and others.

Bitter said the town’s current annual budget includes a $1.7 million drop in fund balances, and retaining this money could help plug the gap in the town’s “rainy day” funds.

A key question is how does the town balance its desire to assist its small businesses while maintaining the vital services these funds were meant to protect. There’s also the question of whether giving the money to businesses violates the Arizona Constitution, Bitter said.

“The Arizona Gift Clause states very clearly that we’re not allowed to gift money to other organizations or other individuals. This is really tough for us in this time when we’re trying to give aid to the community. How do we find a way to make a payment, a loan or a grant?” Bitter asked. The Governor’s and Arizona Attorney General's offices have both declined to offer an opinion.

However, the town can give money to other entities if it promotes a “public purpose” and the town receives a direct benefit of equal or similar value, Bitter said. He recommended against making grants to nonprofits, which have had access to other types of funding under the CARES Act.

Bitter said the state gave its smaller counties, cities and towns only 34.7% of what they should have received under U.S. Treasury guidelines, and it’s unknown if there will be any further disbursements.