FLORENCE — Florence Unified School District is planning to begin the new school year as scheduled on July 22 with several safeguards in place.

“If we’re in Phase 3 (of reopening the country) like the White House is talking about, we’ll be back to school,” Superintendent Chris Knutsen told PinalCentral. The district, which operates in Florence and San Tan Valley, is also planning remote-learning options for students who don’t feel safe on campus.

“Our goal is to start school up on the 22nd and try to make it as normal as possible while mitigating the spread of any COVID-19,” Knutsen said.

FUSD observes a year-round school calendar and starts the year a few weeks earlier than most districts.

There will be hand sanitizer in every classroom, hand-washing stations and regular times for washing hands. There will be Plexiglass shields in school offices. Weight training rooms will be disinfected regularly. Masks will be available for all employees, but a mandatory policy is undecided.

“We’ll do everything we can to try to mitigate the spread (of the virus), but I think we need to get back to living,” Knutsen said.

If the country isn’t in Phase 3 by July 22 that will be a major complication. “If safe social distancing guidelines remain the same it’s going to be very difficult to hold school as normal. You can only fit six kids on a bus with safe social distancing,” Knutsen said.

“Maybe we need to add another custodian at every school to make sure the schools are cleaned every single day. That’s the kind of thing the CARES Act money can go toward.”

CARES Act

FUSD is due to receive $1.9 million in federal CARES Act funding to pay for what’s needed to have school safely and provide the technology needed to reach students who remain at home, Knutsen said. He noted the district already has experience teaching kids at home.

“This spring we had a flexible learning platform that I thought was a success. We will still be offering the same type of platform for those kids. I envision using Google Meet streamed out to those kids so they’ll be able to participate using technology.”

The district is also working on providing Wi-Fi hot spots for students who need them, and Knutsen said he’s also looking at adding more technology to classrooms to help teachers reach students who are learning remotely.

“We need to do the best we can to make sure that kids can be in that classroom virtually, and that’s what we’re working on right now. I don’t want it to be a situation where they’re sitting in front of a computer at home without any connectivity to a teacher. I want the teacher being streamed into that kid’s home.

“We’ll figure it out. You know us. We’re a one-to-one school district (a computer for every student). We will figure out how to do our best to connect with every single kid across our district.”

A need to return to normal

Separation from the community is taking its toll, the superintendent said.

“The damage that isolation is doing to our kids is not good. I look at my own kid and I see him being isolated for the last 2½ months, and it hasn’t been a good thing.

“I look at this through a different lens. Our middle child battled leukemia for seven years. During that time, she had a severely compromised immune system. We had to mitigate the chances of her catching the flu or any normal bug that can kill a child with cancer.”

Knutsen said that child frequently wore a mask and her parents did their best keep her safe.

“But we didn’t stop living. And I feel like we have stopped living in the last 2½ months.”

Knutsen said teachers are also ready to get back to some sense of normalcy. He noted 90% of the class of 2020 showed up to graduate in person in FUSD, and the teachers were there to congratulate them.

“They want to give back to whatever the new normal can be. Will there be some people who won’t want to come back? There might be. But we’re going to do our best to get our kids away from being isolated and back to some sense of normalcy.”

Knutsen added FUSD has been preparing for a while now. He and Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie were at a conference in Los Angeles on Feb. 6 when a speaker asked, “What are you guys going to do if this COVID-19 forces us to shut down?” Knutsen said they immediately got in touch with the district’s tech department to begin working on a flexible learning format.

“And it’s been a huge success. We’ve been able to connect with a lot of our students during this time. We turned on a dime and went to work for our kids. Our mission is kids first, and that’s what we did. And that’s what we’re going to continue to do.

“Florence is a very unique and special place. We want to make sure that our kids are taken care of in FUSD. We’re going to make decisions based on what’s best for kids.”

FUSD employees typically gather on the eve of a new school year for a convocation in the Poston Butte High School gym. Knutsen couldn’t say if that will be possible for the new school year. If gatherings that large are still discouraged in mid-July, it may be held later in the year, he 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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