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MARICOPA — After months of deliberation, numerous polls of parents and teachers and a lot of executive orders, Maricopa Unified School District has elected to go back to school in person, with students in grades K-5 returning by Sept. 14 and grades 6-12 by Sept. 21.

With Pinal County now meeting all three benchmarks for reopening, school districts are free to set dates for reopening.

The move came after an impassioned and, at times, contentious special board meeting Thursday night with board members Ben Owens and Torri Anderson voting against the move in favor of staying closed until fall break for older students.

The meeting opened with a lengthy call to the public, with many parents and teachers voicing their opinions to the board.

Some simply wrote in three words, “open the schools,” while others made emotional pleas for their children’s mental health and declining grades.

“Our students are not doing well in this environment. They are not able to do their assignments,” one in-person parent said. “We need these kids back, and we need to find a way to get that high school up and running even before the elementary schools because these kids cannot survive as juniors and seniors this way.”

Still others praised the dedication of the teachers and staff, and expressed gratitude to MUSD for their commitment to following scientific data.

“MUSD is a family, and I want to thank you for consistently doing what’s best for our family of teachers, staff and students. In the absence of real state leadership, you have provided this community with smart decision making based on science and the metrics,” said one MUSD teacher in a letter. “The fact that most families in this district have chosen to continue their education online speaks volumes.”

Data from a parent survey Aug. 24 validates that statement, with 53% of elementary school parents indicating they wanted to remain online and 56% of middle school parents saying the same. At the high school level, 41% indicated they wanted to remain online, with the inclusion of a large number of “no responses” in the in-person category.

“We were pleasantly surprised by the response, but a little shocked. We thought we were going to have 750-1,000 students (online), which would have been sort of a patchwork operation,” said Superintendent Tracey Lopeman. “It was a credit to the teachers … it was their work that gave parents the confidence to remain in an online setting when given the choice.”

Some teachers were similarly reluctant to return to in-person learning, 164 indicating they would prefer to remain online citing “serious needs.”

Learning labs will continue with full-day schedules regardless of the board’s Thursday night vote, allowing students to return to schools on September 8 as originally stated. Busing will be available to students K-12, and breakfast and lunch is offered at normal pricing. Students attending the learning labs will be supervised by an adult while they complete online school work in a “study hall” environment.

Board president AnnaMarie Knorr said, to clarify, “On Tuesday, your kid can get on a bus, and they can go to school.”

Though the board was in agreement about returning to in-person learning for K-5 on Sept. 14 — voting unanimously to approve the measure — they were much less united for older students.

Board Member Patti Coutre was adamant that 6-12 students be put back in school as soon as possible.

“I still think that Oct. 13 date is unacceptable,” said Coutre. “We’re now at the point where I believe we have really put forth a really good mitigation plan, we have put forth all the safety efforts that we can possibly put through to minimize exposure for staff, students and their families. I think that we are doing an injustice to those students who are not doing well online.”

But bumping up the back to school date for middle and high schoolers is no small feat. Lopeman estimated the master scheduling process to take at the very least three weeks, and two principals in attendance echoed the pressure this would put on teachers and staff.

The superintendent explained that, without the extra time buffer, there could be a large margin of error in the final result, calling it a “trade off.”

Anderson also voiced the concern that teachers would need to input grades twice, once for online and once in person, if they were to go back to school before the end of the first quarter.

Maricopa High School Principal Deana McNamee was among the two principals to address the board.

“Teachers are taking on more preps and they are also teaching classes that they haven’t taught before,” McNamee said. “More time would be great for them to plan and prepare for courses they haven’t taught before. Typically, teachers take a whole summer to prepare for the coursework that they’re going to be teaching.”

She went on to add that it would be nice to award teachers the opportunity to produce quality material for the students. McNamee also addressed Coutre’s suggestions of opening mid-week, saying it would be impossible to schedule 2,500 students overnight.

“To do that over a weekend is a challenge. If we’re coming back on the 14th, or the 21st or the 28th, we’re still looking at a weekend to make that happen,” she said. “Is it doable? We’ll do it if that’s what the decision is, but there will be some errors, some gaps, some holes in schedules, students probably placed in the wrong course.”

She went on to endorse the Oct. 13 start date, saying “having that week over that fall break is what is really essential to make sure that we have the time to make those schedule changes and do it well.”

In response, Coutre said, “I totally understand… but we have students that are failing.”

Anderson made a motion to approve the Oct. 13 start date, and Owens seconded it. The motion failed 3-2.

Coutre made the second motion to return to in-person schooling Sept. 21, and Owens interjected with a final comment before casting his dissenting vote.

“The community must understand what Dr. Lopeman said, this is a trade off,” Owens said. “If we go back on the 21st—”

“It’s going to be a mess,” Anderson finished for him.

“The community, our parents and our students, must be patient with our administration,” Owens said.

The board voted to approve the earlier start date of September 21 by a vote of 3-2, with board members Jim Jordan, Knorr and Coutre in agreement. Anderson maintained her stance, calling the vote an injustice to the teachers of MUSD.

“I’m not willing to take that trade off, I think it’s a disservice to our staff. I think it’s rude,” Anderson said. “We’re not education professionals, our administrators are. They’re giving us the date of the 13th so that we can start with excellence. It’s going to be a mess.”

Knorr also acknowledged teachers and their dedication to their students, but she said she was firm on her belief that staff will figure it out before casting her yes vote.

“At the end of the day, they went into teaching to teach students,” Knorr said. “They’re gonna be willing to put their boots on and make it work.”

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.

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