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MARICOPA — At their first in-person board meeting since April, Maricopa Unified School District board members weighed their options for school reopening, heavily juggling parent opinions, current state guidelines and the latest COVID-19 data to come up with a solution that would cater to all three.

On July 22, the board had voted to push back the start of in-person learning until at least Sept. 8, but that date is still contingent on several factors.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman explained there were three benchmarks that needed to be met by Pinal County before schools could consider reopening under Gov. Doug Ducey’s Aug. 6 orders. As recommended by the Arizona Department of Health Services, those benchmarks are: two weeks with COVID-19 cases below 100 per 100,000 people, two weeks with hospital visits due to COVID-19 below 10% and two weeks with percent positivity below 7%.

“We know that we’re particularly focused on the percent positivity rating falling below 7%,” said Lopeman. “With that benchmark (met), we can consider coming back to in-person learning. The recommendation is a hybrid model.”

Board member Patti Coutre pointed out that even if Pinal County did not meet that third benchmark, the district would still qualify for a hybrid learning model.

Lopeman said MUSD had sent out another parent survey after two weeks of online learning to gauge public support. The results of that data poll showed that at elementary and middle school levels, just under 200 more parents indicated they preferred remaining online compared to those who wanted to return to in-person class.

“You can see that more people are choosing to remain online — there’s no other way to describe that,” Lopeman said. “More than half are declaring they would like to remain online.”

Data at the high school level was less conclusive however, with 964 parents choosing online learning, 912 choosing in-person and 788 with “no response,” which Lopeman partially attributed to changing enrollment numbers.

Exactly 164 staff members have also requested placement in an online-only position, due to a variety of reasons including health and professional interests.

With data on the table, Lopeman turned to her ideas for reopening. Her original suggestion to the board was to bring back K-5 students on Sept. 14, and grades 6-12 on Oct. 13 to account for rescheduling. For reference, fall break for MUSD is Sept. 28 to Oct. 12. In order to even consider Sept. 14, though, the benchmarks would first need to meet.

“Sept. 8 is unrealistic, because we have not yet had a below 7% reading,” Lopeman said.

Pinal County is one of six counties in the state to fail to meet the benchmark for reopening, hovering at 7.8%. This is largely due to an ongoing outbreak in Florence.

Despite the county’s stagnant case numbers, Coutre voiced concern for the students struggling with online learning.

“I know that there are a number of students that online (learning) is not working for. They are falling further and further behind with every day that they are not in school,” Coutre said. “I appreciate the fact that your recommendation to go back is the 14th, but I cannot accept (Oct. 13) for the rest of the grades, that is too far.”

Coutre did concede that scheduling is more complex for 6-12 grades, but disagreed it would take an entire month to reorient schedules.

“I will respectfully disagree with Patti, because as a secondary teacher, it is extremely difficult to change the schedules,” Torri Anderson said. “Even if they were able to get it done by the first part of October, we’re going into fall break. It makes it much easier for secondary students to complete an entire quarter online so it’s consistent and then come back after fall break.”

Anderson also pointed to the recent COVID-19 case involving a Maricopa High School athlete, which forced the entire football and wrestling teams to quarantine, and cited other districts having issues with outbreaks after returning to in-person learning.

Those who made plans for returning to school Sept. 8 can still take advantage of MUSD’s learning labs, which have been extended to full-day. As suggested by board member Ben Owens, the superintendent is looking into ways to facilitate transportation for those learning lab students.

MUSD is also going to offer staff and families free testing at Maricopa Wellness Center with a multi-day, drive-thru event, with more details to come.

The board will meet again on Thursday, Sept. 3, for a special meeting to discuss the latest data and factor that into its master reopening plans.

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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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