Back to school, sort of

A student was back at Florence K-8 Monday, but without most of her classmates and friends. Florence Unified School District opened school buildings on a limited basis for students who need tech support or supervision as they do their school work.

FLORENCE — Schools were to reopen this week on a limited basis for students who need tech support or merely some supervision as they do their school work.

The Florence Unified School District governing board voted Aug. 11 to reopen buildings for everyone no sooner than Oct. 5, which is the day students would normally be returning from fall break. FUSD planned to contact parents this week to ask them to choose by Aug. 28th whether they want their children to return in person on Oct. 5 or continue to study at home via the district’s Florence Virtual Academy.

But starting this week, a limited number of students can come to school.

“What we’re calling them is Internet Opportunity Zones,” Assistant Superintendent Adam Leckie told the school board. He said this isn’t instruction, but places at each school site where students can sign up to go during school hours to access the internet and be socially-distanced and supervised. Students can receive basic tech support if they need it, and complete their coursework with their teachers through Google Meets.

He said these areas would most likely be set up in cafeterias and gyms. Students may also eat breakfast and lunch at school of they wish. The district can’t provide transportation in this case, and there’s a capacity limit to ensure social distancing. “But it’s an option to provide some relief to families that are struggling,” Leckie said.

He said FUSD personnel are also working to identify the most at-risk students who are not benefiting from online instruction, whether it’s due to a disability or being an English language-learner. The district puts out “frequently-asked-questions” videos every Friday.

Face coverings required

In other business last week, the board voted to require all staff and students over the age of 5 to wear face coverings until the Arizona Department of Health Services determines face coverings are no longer necessary or recommended. Specifically:

  • All staff and students will be required to wear cloth face coverings while on any school campus or district property including buses and school vehicles;
  • Staff or students with documented health conditions or educational reasons can request clear face shields in place of cloth face masks;
  • Face coverings are not to be worn during outside recess times;
  • Face coverings are not required when students can physically distance eight feet or more;
  • Face coverings should not be worn by anyone under the age of 2 or by anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask;
  • All students will be given periodic breaks where they can remove their face coverings throughout the school day in a space that is physically distant from others;
  • The district will provide information to families on face-covering guidelines and the importance of wearing face coverings when not able to physically distance.

Pinal County school officials have vetted FUSD’s “Return to Learn” plan and have provided feedback for when in-person instruction resumes, Leckie told the school board. “They did comment that ours was one of the most comprehensive that they’ve seen and they were very happy with the job we did as a task force.”

FUSD continues to work on a “pre-contact-tracing protocol” in case of an outbreak. The county will do the actual contact tracing, but FUSD will be prepared to provide information to expedite the process “and hopefully, make sure we don’t have to close down classrooms or schools at any point,” Leckie told the board.

A single confirmed case could lead to closing a school, if that’s what the school board and county health department determine. Or if it can be isolated to certain classrooms, those rooms could shift to online instruction and return to in-person instruction when it’s safe to do so “without skipping a beat.”

In the meantime, Leckie said staff and students are working hard to make the most of learning at home. He told the board that Arizona school districts were required to begin school on time with distance learning. On average, FUSD is seeing about 95% attendance, which is similar to what it would be seeing in-person, he said. “Our tech team did an amazing job of distributing almost 7,000 devices to students.” There are almost 10,000 students in the district.

“We are reporting good engagement and learning with kids. I was able to pop in to classrooms periodically the first few days, and saw a kid connecting with their friends, connecting to their teachers. It was encouraging to see,” Leckie said.

“A lot of our teachers have been extremely creative in ways to engage their students online. This is really new for everybody, so there’s definitely a learning curve for parents, for students and for teachers, and us as administrators, to be able to support online learning in the comprehensive way our district is doing now. … But we know there are struggles, there are challenges.

“Our goal is to listen and support families through this time,” Leckie said. “We know it’s temporary. We know that every single one of us in this room wants our kids back in school in person. So we’re trying to balance health and safety with really engaging our kids in ongoing learning and instruction.”


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