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MARICOPA — In a special meeting Thursday night, the Maricopa Unified School Board voted to move online for the first three days back at school to allow for possible COVID-19 outbreaks post-holiday season.

The move came after MUSD Superintendent Tracey Lopeman addressed the board with the latest data released Thursday highlighting the continued spread of COVID-19. The latest metrics, two weeks old, puts MUSD in the red zone for two of the three benchmarks.

“We can all see the trajectory and extrapolate where these benchmarks will continue to escalate,” said Lopeman.

The data shows stark increases in COVID-19 cases, percent positive and COVID-like illnesses, and shows MUSD on a path to crossing into the red zone for the third and final benchmark. At the beginning of the school year, the board used a similar trajectory to make the decision to move online. Board member Jim Jordan wasn’t as sure this time though.

“We’re looking to try to figure out what to do in the future, but it might be that that metric has started to peak, and will start to go down again,” Jordan said. “It’s possible we’ve reached that peak and don’t know it yet.”

Board member Ben Owens responded with a challenge given to him by a teacher in MUSD, quoting the teacher.

“My question to the board is, ‘How do we change as a community if it is not modeled amongst high-ranking citizens such as you and other board members to trust highly educated individuals. Do you choose to ignore science, health experts and other factual data because that is what will satisfy the community? Or do you follow the facts and data like we encourage our students to do?’”

Based on the data and other school board decisions, Owens put forth a consideration to maintain distance learning through Jan. 19. There was some contention between board member Torri Anderson and President AnnaMarie Knorr about what the best interests of students entailed, and whether consistency or in-person learning should be prioritized.

Ultimately, the board preferred to reserve judgment on future closures for after winter break and voted unanimously to approve an online start for all students Jan. 5-8.

Some students might still be in class though. Legally, MUSD is required to provide a free and public education for students with special needs, which could include offering specialized instruction in-person for those students. These students make up a small population, according to Director of Exceptional Student Services Teri Louer.

During distance learning at the beginning of the school year, around 50% of ESS students returned for in-person learning.

The board will meet again Jan. 7, a Thursday, to discuss the latest data and reports of illnesses from MUSD families over break to make further decisions.

“I appreciate and respect all of you, and our ability and our sophistication to have more than one though at one time,” Lopeman said, addressing the board. “I commend you, each of you, on your willingness to serve in this time.

“We’re regular people, making extraordinary decisions for an entire community.”

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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.