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FLORENCE — Students in the elementary grades will return for regular in-person classes on Feb. 8, and high school students will return on Feb. 16, the Florence Unified School District governing board voted Tuesday afternoon.

Board President Denise Guenther said no one predicted the disruption of a pandemic, “But at the same time we are essential. Kids come to us because they have nowhere else. So I’m struggling, I really am. I do not support virtual learning. But I do support this district and the administration and the hard work they have put in. … We have to get these kids back in school.”

FUSD’s 10,000 students in San Tan Valley and Florence have all been learning from home since Jan. 14, when the school board voted to close school buildings in response to high teacher absences.

Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the board Tuesday the effects of the holiday season on the pandemic appear to have peaked in mid-January and are now tapering off. Keeping the buildings closed an additional week gives teachers more time to receive their COVID-19 vaccinations, he said.

But it’s especially important to get K-3 students back in regular classes, because they are least likely to benefit from online instruction. “Those students are also most likely to need supervision at home, and our community struggles” because so many parents commute, Leckie said.

Although some students struggle with learning from home, or “virtual learning,” Leckie said FUSD has improved its virtual instruction over the past year and saw significant improvement in the fall. “The feedback we’re getting so far is yes, it’s still challenging in certain respects, but it’s better than it was. Kids are more engaged … and kids are completing work at a much higher level.”

The district has also considered a “hybrid model” of instruction, in which the student body is divided into two groups that are in the building on different days. FUSD has yet to try it. FUSD hears from other districts that it brings significant challenges and drawbacks, Leckie told the board Tuesday.

Also, “One of the last things we wanted to do was put a different learning method out there right now for our families. … The benefits of staying with a consistent approach with virtual learning we felt outweighed the inconsistency and novelty of a new approach,” he said.

Even during district-wide virtual learning, students can still avail themselves of “Internet Opportunity Zones” at their schools. This is for students who need internet access, have child care concerns, “or just need to be in a school during this time,” Leckie said. There were approximately 81 students last week and about 78 this week who used this service.

By having high school students return a week later than elementary students, the district can also use high school substitute teachers at the elementary level to better ensure classes are covered, Leckie told the board. Superintendent Chris Knutsen said substitute teachers are still very much needed. He told people in the community who have college degrees, “We need you to come and sub for us.”

Board member Sherri Jones asked what happens after Feb. 16.

“We’ve turned on a dime 50 times over the last 11 months,” Knutsen said. “We don’t have a crystal ball, so I really hope everyone stays forever positive that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I think that’s how we have to live our lives.”

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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.