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MARICOPA — Maricopa Unified School District has settled on a fall semester start date following weeks of deliberation and shifting guidelines from the state.

School will resume for students entirely online on July 30, seven days after the original scheduled start date, to help accommodate for district and teacher preparation.

At the start of Wednesday’s meeting, the board heard from a variety of concerned parents and teachers on the future of the 2020-21 school year. The responses were mixed, with some imploring for school to resume in-person as soon as possible, while others expressed fear of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“My school-age children are in the second and third grade. They want to go back to school. They need to go back to school,” wrote one parent in a letter to the board. “Online learning is not equivalent to in-person learning at the K-5 level. They need to return not only for academics, but for their physical and mental health as well.”

In a parent survey conducted in June and before the current spike in COVID-19 cases, 45% of parents who responded indicated they wanted a brick-and-mortar model of learning in the fall. On the other hand, 22% of parents opted for an online model. One such parent wrote to the board and voiced her desire for an all-online model for the fall semester.

“I have previously expressed my desire to see us in an online-learning format only at least through (the) first quarter with exceptions made for small groups, tutoring and specific populations that need in-person support,” a Maricopa mom wrote in her letter. “We will get a chance to recover lost learning and socializing opportunities, but we will not get do-overs on lost life and health of staff, students and families.”

Sue Swano, president of the Maricopa Education Association, also wrote in to express her support of the board and the letter sent to state officials by Arizona board members demanding a delayed start to school until Oct. 1. MUSD board member Torri Anderson was one of more than 60 members who signed the letter.

Swano also pointed out that the new online program is likely to be much more streamlined and in-depth than the model observed in last year’s fourth quarter.

“In March when schools closed, we were crisis teaching, not distance-learning teaching,” Swano wrote. “There is a difference between the two models of online learning. The fourth quarter K-8 teachers supported students in completing the summer workbooks the district provided — which is not distance learning. MEA members are looking forward to an in-depth teacher training to learn the new distance learning platform we will be using.”

Distance learning programs for K-5 are still under deliberation, but MUSD Director of Curriculum Wade Watson said the curriculum will be decided upon and put into place by the start of school. Watson outlined several online programs including Florida Virtual Academy as options during his presentation to the board and stated that, at the very least, the opportunity for online schooling will provide a necessary safety net.

“We’ll be ready,” Watson said. “I call it our insurance plan, it really will provide a great resource and tools for us. Our teachers will be much more prepared to turn on a dime, which we were asked to do fourth quarter.”

After discussion, the board was ready to make the decision to delay the start of school, but it was more hesitant to decide on the model of learning to use starting Aug. 17.

“It’s not a decision we can solely make,” said board President AnnaMarie Knorr. “We have to wait on the guidance from the Governor’s Office and ADE (Arizona Department of Education). We could say, ‘We’re gonna start our schools Aug. 17,’ and they could come out and say ‘You can’t start your schools until Oct. 14.’”

The board agreed to wait until the July 22 meeting to discuss any new updates or outbreaks before making its final decision on the fall model. In a follow-up video, Superintendent Tracey Lopeman confirmed the online start date.

“Last night, the governing board approved the new start date for the new school year. The first day of school will be Thursday, July 30, in an all-distance, online format,” Lopeman said. “Given the circumstances, we have embraced this form of teaching and learning and have invested tremendous resources to ensure your child has a high quality education.”

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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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