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MARICOPA — Just three days after Maricopa High School students began their classes on Sept. 21, several letters read out in the call to the public section of Wednesday’s Maricopa Unified School District board meeting highlighted overcrowded classrooms at MHS and concerns over COVID-19.

“I am absolutely sick with worry about my colleagues who returned to in-person instruction this week at MHS,” wrote one teacher in a letter. “Many of them have large class sizes, some of them don’t have enough desks or chairs in their classrooms to accommodate the number of students in their classes, how is that safe? How can students and staff socially distance in classrooms that are over capacity?”

The teacher also wrote that sanitizing supplies were already running out with no promise of when more would arrive, and her three online classes were nearing 50 students. She totaled her student count at over 200, saying, “I have never had this many students before, and worry about my ability to deliver effective, rigorous instruction.”

Another individual wrote in to voice concerns for the staff, saying the high school had lost teachers and the “huge class sizes are not sustainable.”

When the board voted to reopen schools to in-person learning in a Sept. 3 board meeting, two board members dissented from the vote, citing concerns of the ability for staff to create a brand new schedule in just a few weeks.

Board Vice President Ben Owens had voted against the reopening and begged the public to be patient with staff as they tried to make it happen. Board member Torri Anderson had gone as far as to say the early opening was “a disservice to staff.”

Their sentiments were echoed by those letters read out by the board on Wednesday.

One 40-year veteran teacher said he had long since viewed the district as making sound decisions and said he was disappointed by the board’s recent choice to reopen schools now.

“There are many, many challenges that are yet to be met. Class sizes of 40 to 60 are happening, … teacher and student stress is through the roof,” he wrote. “Your choice was a poor one, because there was not enough time to fundamentally change the school landscape by creating an entirely new schedule.”

Another teacher described colleagues as using hand sanitizer to wipe down desks and trying to stretch a single box of wipes over several days due to shortages.

“Everything right now feels like chaos,” said the high school teacher. “Both students and teachers are at their breaking point and today was only day three, … social distance was a pipe dream.”

Concerns over the loss of teachers and staff were also a major talking point, with several individuals pointing to recent resignations as a sign that teachers are overworked.

“At this point it 100% feels to many staff as though the board and district are completely unwilling to acknowledge the differences involved with secondary student learning or the plummeting teacher efficacy and morale, as every worthy and viable solution we introduce is shot down for reasons that have nothing to do with student learning or student achievement,” one letter from a teacher concluded.

In total, eight letters were read out in the meeting that concerned the overcrowding at the high school and detailed other issues like sanitation and overall morale. Shortly after, during the board member reports, Anderson addressed the letters indirectly.

“I will say I am trying really hard to hold back tears,” Anderson paused, “because we’ve worked so hard to retain our teachers and this board made a decision that is affecting our students and I just want us to think about that.”

Later, during board President AnnaMarie Knorr’s report, she said she shared Anderson’s heartbreak for teachers.

“I know it’s not easy, but I do have to plead with this community not to make this political. Board members have been accused of making things political; nothing I have done in regards to this issue has been political,” Knorr said. “I voted to open the schools back up because I thought that’s what was best for our students and I understand the hardships.”

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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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