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SAN TAN VALLEY — The Florence Unified School District Governing Board approved a plan to reopen school on July 22 while strongly recommending face masks for students, teachers and staff.

Those plans were quickly altered, however, on Monday when Gov. Doug Ducey announced that in-person classes would not be starting until Aug. 17 as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona.

As a result of Ducey’s order, FUSD on Monday posted on Facebook that administrators were meeting to discuss how to move forward.

District staff presented a reopening plan that required face coverings at a meeting June 25. But school board President Denise Guenther made the motion to amend it to say masks were recommended. With almost half of parents undecided about sending their children back to regular classes, they will need to know what the mask rule is to make their decision, Guenther said.

Almost half of FUSD parents surveyed said they were uncomfortable (11.8%) or very uncomfortable (35.4%) with their child wearing a mask at school.

FUSD will offer both at-school and at-home learning, and parents are being asked to choose which one they’ll be doing by Friday. “We need to get those numbers in, and we need to know where we’re at so that we can further our plan and tighten it up a little bit more,” Guenther said.

The board will likely discuss the reopening plan again, she continued. “This is not a completely solid plan. We have many questions. It’s all a matter of we have to see where we’re at and how many kids are returning so we can see where we need to go from here.”

Board member Bob Dailey seconded Guenther’s motion but added he predicts the state will be mandating masks for everyone by the time school reopens.

Board member Katrina Solis said parents need to make sure their children have a clean mask to wear each day. “I don’t want it to be the sole responsibility of the school; parents have to take responsibility as well,” she said.

District staff and contractors will disinfect buildings throughout the day and night. Water bottle stations will allow students to refill bottles rather than drink from shared fountains.

There will be frequent handwashing throughout the day. Campuses will be closed to visitors.

Most classrooms aren’t big enough provide 6 feet of social distancing for everyone, but “we’ll spread them out as best we can,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the board.

The district plans to invest much of its federal CARES Act funding into personal protective equipment, sanitizing equipment and materials, air filtration and other measures for safe and clean schools.

This includes $678,258 for a custodial company to provide increased sanitizing. Board Vice President Jim Thomas asked if the contract could be canceled if schools are ordered to close again. District staff couldn’t immediately say.

Florence K-8 teacher Kathryn Harding told the board she appreciated all the work that the board and the district work groups have done to prepare for a safe reopening. She said some people will be unhappy with the options, “no matter what we do.

“However, I feel as a teacher that we have to do what’s best for students, and many of our students, they need to come back to school. And as a teacher, I want to come back to school,” Harding said.

Another teacher read a statement from a fellow teacher being treated for COVID-19: “I understand everybody wants to get back to living, but I do not consider it living when I’m in the hospital and having permanent organ damage — something that could lead to a loss of life or saddle me with medical debt if and when I do recover. This feels very political when at this time it should be a time of caution and listening to science.”

Parents surveyed

In a district survey of parents, about 49% said they had planned to send their children to school when classes were to resume on July 22. Somewhat fewer, 42%, said maybe they would and 9% said they would not.

When administrators asked parents what they needed to feel comfortable sending their children to school, the responses fell into two categories, Leckie said.

Some wanted a vaccine or other assurance the virus was contained. Others sought assurance the district was following all safety procedures, including social distancing, cleanliness and other healthy behaviors to protect students as much as possible.

Almost half said they were comfortable (9.4%) or very comfortable (35.9%) with their child riding the bus. Over half said they were comfortable (12.3%) or very comfortable (40.9%) with their child eating in the cafeteria.

However, the plan at this time is that they won’t. High school students will be encouraged to spread out across campus with enforced social distancing at lunchtime. K-8 students will eat in their classrooms, Leckie said, although details are still being worked out.

Guenther said not just teachers, but students, will need time out of the classroom each day, otherwise teachers will struggle to keep kids on task.

Leckie said students will have recess, with the mixing of classes and grades occurring as little as possible.

Superintendent Chris Knutsen said the goal is to have sports for grades 7-12 in the new school year, as much as guidelines allow. “But it’s an ever-changing, fluid situation.”

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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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