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MUSD in-person start still up in air as Pinal lags behind benchmarks

MARICOPA — At their first in-person board meeting since April, Maricopa Unified School District board members weighed their options for school reopening, heavily juggling parent opinions, current state guidelines and the latest COVID-19 data to come up with a solution that would cater to all three.

On July 22, the board had voted to push back the start of in-person learning until at least Sept. 8, but that date is still contingent on several factors.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman explained there were three benchmarks that needed to be met by Pinal County before schools could consider reopening under Gov. Doug Ducey’s Aug. 6 orders. As recommended by the Arizona Department of Health Services, those benchmarks are: two weeks with COVID-19 cases below 100 per 100,000 people, two weeks with hospital visits due to COVID-19 below 10% and two weeks with percent positivity below 7%.

“We know that we’re particularly focused on the percent positivity rating falling below 7%,” said Lopeman. “With that benchmark (met), we can consider coming back to in-person learning. The recommendation is a hybrid model.”

Board member Patti Coutre pointed out that even if Pinal County did not meet that third benchmark, the district would still qualify for a hybrid learning model.

Lopeman said MUSD had sent out another parent survey after two weeks of online learning to gauge public support. The results of that data poll showed that at elementary and middle school levels, just under 200 more parents indicated they preferred remaining online compared to those who wanted to return to in-person class.

“You can see that more people are choosing to remain online — there’s no other way to describe that,” Lopeman said. “More than half are declaring they would like to remain online.”

Data at the high school level was less conclusive however, with 964 parents choosing online learning, 912 choosing in-person and 788 with “no response,” which Lopeman partially attributed to changing enrollment numbers.

Exactly 164 staff members have also requested placement in an online-only position, due to a variety of reasons including health and professional interests.

With data on the table, Lopeman turned to her ideas for reopening. Her original suggestion to the board was to bring back K-5 students on Sept. 14, and grades 6-12 on Oct. 13 to account for rescheduling. For reference, fall break for MUSD is Sept. 28 to Oct. 12. In order to even consider Sept. 14, though, the benchmarks would first need to meet.

“Sept. 8 is unrealistic, because we have not yet had a below 7% reading,” Lopeman said.

Pinal County is one of six counties in the state to fail to meet the benchmark for reopening, hovering at 7.8%. This is largely due to an ongoing outbreak in Florence.

Despite the county’s stagnant case numbers, Coutre voiced concern for the students struggling with online learning.

“I know that there are a number of students that online (learning) is not working for. They are falling further and further behind with every day that they are not in school,” Coutre said. “I appreciate the fact that your recommendation to go back is the 14th, but I cannot accept (Oct. 13) for the rest of the grades, that is too far.”

Coutre did concede that scheduling is more complex for 6-12 grades, but disagreed it would take an entire month to reorient schedules.

“I will respectfully disagree with Patti, because as a secondary teacher, it is extremely difficult to change the schedules,” Torri Anderson said. “Even if they were able to get it done by the first part of October, we’re going into fall break. It makes it much easier for secondary students to complete an entire quarter online so it’s consistent and then come back after fall break.”

Anderson also pointed to the recent COVID-19 case involving a Maricopa High School athlete, which forced the entire football and wrestling teams to quarantine, and cited other districts having issues with outbreaks after returning to in-person learning.

Those who made plans for returning to school Sept. 8 can still take advantage of MUSD’s learning labs, which have been extended to full-day. As suggested by board member Ben Owens, the superintendent is looking into ways to facilitate transportation for those learning lab students.

MUSD is also going to offer staff and families free testing at Maricopa Wellness Center with a multi-day, drive-thru event, with more details to come.

The board will meet again on Thursday, Sept. 3, for a special meeting to discuss the latest data and factor that into its master reopening plans.

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15-year-old Maricopa student behind weekly community giveaways


On Thursday, Phoenix Rescue Mission workers pulling into the Highway 238 RV Storage facility were greeted by quite the sight: 9,500 bottles of purified water.

It was all thanks to 15-year-old Crystal Santillan, who runs the “Arizona Friday Giveaways” Facebook page with her dad, Joseph Furman. Crystal, a student at Heritage Academy in Maricopa, started her page about a year ago with the idea of giving back to the community she has received love and support from ever since she arrived in the city in her early childhood.

“Throughout my life, I’ve met a lot of amazing people that have always helped me in everything,” Crystal said. “I came up with the idea to do free giveaways with no strings attached, so it would be open to everyone.”

The Arizona Friday Giveaways page is just that: a way to support the community that has supported her through weekly giveaways on Fridays. She normally uploads the giveaways by Wednesday and does a live drawing every Friday.

She and her dad never set out to receive donations for their generous deeds, instead they approach local businesses with the idea of purchasing their giveaway items.

“She never really goes to anybody and asks for anything,” Furman said. “Usually it’s out of pocket for me to pay for what she wants to do or what she’s doing.”

Such was the case with her first 50 cases of water, which were a personal donation by her father. He did the same for her last year, with the goal of reaching as many in need as possible.

“We know that it’s gotten so hot lately and with everything going on, it might not be that easy for people now,” Crystal said. “We just wanted to figure out a way to help as many people as possible, so we decided to do water because it’s very essential in Arizona due to the heat.”

This year, Crystal did put out a call for donations on her growing Facebook page, and the response was more than she could have imagined. She received around $750 that she immediately spent on water to donate to Phoenix Rescue Mission.

The purchase was captured by a bystander, Candice Evans, who uploaded a video of her wheeling large pallets of water outside a local store with the caption, “In a crazy world, a good deed. You are already awesome and blessed and you will continue to be. Keep up the amazing work. Your parents should be very proud.”

Crystal says she’s just doing what the community has done for her.

“Every single time I basically hit a crossroad in my life, there’d always be someone that I met that would help me get through it, or just give me some inspiration to keep going,” Crystal said. “They have become big parts of my life, and there are big people in the community that have helped.”

One of those individuals is Jennifer Connelly, director of development for Maricopa Food Pantry.

“She showed me how wonderful people are, and not to let things get to you and just keep pushing forward,” Crystal said.

Connelly, in the nonprofit field herself with Maricopa Food Pantry, has helped mentor Crystal. Still others in the community have found different ways of supporting and helping the budding philanthropist.

Often, when business owners hear of Crystal’s good deeds, they willingly offer their services or items for free.

“We never really turn down anything — the more the merrier,” Furman said. “If people do give us stuff for free or they give donations to her, we don’t pay for the giveaway but we turn around and support the business in any way possible.”

In the past and aside from her water donations, Crystal has done anything between nail polish giveaways to partnering with local businesses like Yogurt Jungle to put on raffles and offer free items.

“Me and my dad met the owner, Michelle (Johnson), and we wanted to help her since she needed help since COVID began,” Crystal said. “We reached out to her and we asked her if we could host a raffle at her place. We were outside and everyone who went there, we gave them a free yogurt card and we let them enter a raffle of prizes for about $500.”

The prizes were gift cards and items from other local businesses like Buff City Soap, Monsoon Coffee and Sentimental Sawdust. She always tries to at least match the donation, and with the uptick in her page, they have about eight Friday giveaways scheduled ahead of them. Sometimes, the donations are so good they almost seem too-good-to-be-true to some people, and Crystal said some have accused them of scamming people.

One of Crystal’s ultimate giveaway goals is to donate a car, “for someone who really needs it.”

Crystal has three siblings, but her giveaway page is something special she shares with her dad, who describes his daughter as both fun-loving and big-hearted.

“I help support her in what she wants to do,” Furman said. “It makes me feel great that, at only 14, she started the page. It feels good that she wants to give back and help other people as well. … Whatever she has in mind, whatever she wants to do, we usually try to get it done.”

To stay up to date on Crystal’s local giving and maybe even win a prize, check out Arizona Friday Giveaways on Facebook.

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New apartments, other developments upcoming in Maricopa

MARICOPA — At an Aug. 18 meeting, the City Council took the next steps in several new developments including apartments and beautification projects by approving zoning and general plan amendments.

The first to be approved were amendments to the general plan and zoning code to change 1.69 acres of land on Porter and Honeycutt roads from employment to high density residential. The change will mark the next step for the O’Jon Terrace Apartments, a new complex that will help diversify housing in Maricopa, which currently does not have any apartment-style homes.

O’Jon Terrace Apartments will have 27 units and 55 parking spaces in the first phase of construction, but that number could increase to 48 in future phases. The two-story complexes will be a mix of one- and two-bedroom units and will sit in the southwestern corner of the currently vacant lot.

The zoning and general plan changes were considered minor, and Planning and Zoning Manager Rudy Lopez said they were still dealing with some residual zoning from previous years.

“Since five years ago (when) we adopted our new zoning code, we’re slowly but surely transitioning — removing the old legacy of Pinal County zoning districts and utilizing our new nomenclature of the new city of Maricopa zoning code,” Lopez explained to the council.

The council additionally approved zoning amendments for approximately 25 acres of land on Porter and Bowlin roads to be used for The Bungalows at Bowlin. This designates 21.21 acres as multiple unit residential and 4.6 acres as neighborhood commercial. The bungalow-style homes will be a combination of single-family homes and shared duplexes.

Also on the council’s agenda for the evening was the Maricopa Station Overlay project, a development that would “beautify” the diamond-shaped area of land just east of State Route 347 overpass, surrounding Honeycutt Road, Plainview Street and Mercado Street.

The proposed overlay is a continuation of the city’s ongoing goal to enhance the area and create a downtown destination in the heart of the city. As part of the project, the city hopes to beautify the area, make it more walkable and pedestrian friendly and create a cohesive design standard.

“We’ve talked about this in our strategic planning retreat before so it’s nice to see that this overlay is coming before us so that we can get these design standards in place and get things accelerated,” Mayor Christian Price said. “There is interest in the area, I think it’s a benefit to everybody who comes.”

Those design standards include specifying forms of signage and architectural details, while maintaining the historic and rustic feel of the area.

“The first overlay that the city did five years ago — we really learned a lot from that,” said Lopez. “It really didn’t provide enough flexibility or adaptability with that overlay, and what we did with this project is we actually had renowned land use planners, consultants and an architect to help us first illustrate what this ultimate vision is and then we developed the code from that itself.”

The code changes will help give that needed flexibility to the administration for future changes.

Also on the list of upcoming beautification projects is improving the aesthetic of John Wayne Parkway after council came to an agreement with ADOT a few months back. Art, foliage and other additions will help create the image the city is going for. This will also enable the city to create a long-awaited “welcome to Maricopa” sign for those entering Maricopa from SR 347.

The city simultaneously introduced new tools for Maricopans to see developments first hand, which can be found here.