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.

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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.

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