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FLORENCE — Florence Unified School District classes will begin as scheduled next week with all of its estimated 9,500 students learning from home.

The district recently planned to start the 2020-21 school year on Wednesday by offering both at-school and at-home classes, according to the needs or wishes of each family. But since Gov. Doug Ducey ordered school buildings to remain closed until Aug. 17, all students will begin the school year in a distance-learning format, Superintendent Chris Knutsen said in a Facebook post.

He added in an interview Wednesday with PinalCentral that FUSD has enough take-home devices for all students, and “I think we’re going to be able to do it. Our teachers are going to do their best to connect with students and teach new content.”

Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie said working for a safe reopening of schools while preparing for everyone to learn at home “has been the greatest challenge I’ve ever had as an educator or district administrator.”

School principals were expected to be in touch with families by the end of last week to share details about device pick-up, instructional time and other details of the distance-learning platform, “which will be quite different” than the online learning students finished the 2019-20 school year with, Knutsen said on Facebook. Students should now expect more direct instruction and to learn new content, he said.

Every student will be enrolled and connected to their teacher; students will learn new content as if they were in-person, and technical support will be available, according to the FUSD Facebook page.

“You may also find information on our Return to Learn website (search FUSD return to learn), including resources for parents and an FAQ where we will provide continuous updates,” Knutsen said.

The first three days of school — Wednesday and July 23-24 — will be used for teachers to connect with students and explain the distance-learning expectations “and allow them time to adjust to the new online environment,” Knutsen said.

The superintendent’s Facebook posts did not indicate a date when buildings will be open to students. Ducey said at a news conference last week the Aug. 17 school opening date was “aspirational” and not firm. Knutsen said Wednesday he believed the announced date would be delayed.

According to the FUSD school calendar, school is scheduled to resume Oct. 5 after a two-week fall break, but Leckie couldn’t say if this is when buildings will reopen. He said it’s a question district officials and staff work on daily as they wait for further guidance from the Governor’s Office and attempt to balance the needs of the community.

“I am confident that our team of educators and support staff are ready to connect with your students academically, socially and emotionally to ensure that every child is successful at the start of the new school year,” Knutsen said on Facebook.

The district’s school reopening task force also continues to develop a safe plan for students to physically return to their school buildings.

“As always, email communications, our official social media channels and our Return to Learn website will always be the official source for information regarding our school plans,” Knutsen said. “We want to assure our FUSD family that we will continue to follow the guidance from the CDC and our state and local public health leaders, to prepare for a safe return to school when the restrictions are lifted. Until then, I implore you to stay positive, stay connected and stay healthy. We will get through this together.”

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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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