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MARICOPA — After its third school shut down due to COVID-19 this week, Maricopa Unified School District held a board meeting which highlighted the contentious debate to remain in-person learning or move online as cases rise again.

A survey from the district to secondary parents asking whether their child will attend class online or in-person in the spring semester yielded an almost 50/50 response. The numbers hardly changed from this semester, with 1,452 in-person and 1,351 online the first semester and 1,449 and 1,354 the second — a difference of only three students switching to online.

Maricopa Wells and Desert Wind middle schools had the opposite occur, with about 50 more parents indicating they will switch to in-person for the spring. Elementary results are still pending.

The district also asked teachers their thoughts in a separate survey, which 94% of teachers responded to. When asked if teachers were “comfortable with their assignment,” 81% said yes.

During the board meeting, the board heard from many concerned parents, teachers and even students during the public comment portion, which stretched over 30 minutes. Some expressed fear for the safety of their students and teachers, while others voiced their frustration at the district’s decisions to date.

The dais was first approached by Sue Swano, president of the Maricopa Educators Association. She shared a survey MEA had done among their teacher members. According to Swano’s survey, 11% of MUSD teachers who participated have had to substitute for someone in quarantine this semester. Additionally, 29% indicated they had lost prep time and 52% are currently teaching online and in-person classes concurrently.

Many teachers stated they took on these tasks several times a week. Swano also told the board that teachers had written that their health is declining. She went on to recommend that the board moves back to online for the remainder of the semester due to COVID.

“Containing the COVID-19 virus and protecting our members, staff and students is our number one concern,” she told the board.

Several other individuals and groups wrote letters to the board to be read out for the public. The letters illustrated a range of opinions on the subject of schools closing again. A set of third grade teachers at Pima Butte Elementary told the board they felt in-person classes were in the best interests of students, and that the “lack of structure” in the hybrid model could cause problems. Still, other teachers told the board they were being treated as babysitters.

“It is becoming more apparent that elementary teachers and staff are looked to as childcare,” said one MUSD teacher in a letter. “We at the elementary level are somehow considered more essential because parents need a place for their children during the school day. … Stressful inconveniences should not outweigh elementary teacher and student safety.”

Some disputed the severity of the virus in their letters, questioning the nation’s COVID numbers and data.

“I believe my son should receive the same free public education I received as a child as well as many others. I don’t think closing the school district and doing all online is going to benefit my son,” a parent wrote. “How many of the people who have tested positive were misdiagnosed or were false positives?”

The Maricopa High School Class of 2021, which was recently affected by a two-week closure due to a COVID outbreak, also wrote an open letter to the board. These students identified themselves as members of the top 10% of their graduating class, and told the board they felt their concerns weren’t being listened to.

“For too long our concerns and grievances during this academic year have fallen upon deaf ears,” the letter said. “To pretend everything is fine and continue on full force, mental health be damned, will only further student and staff frustration. We want to have an open dialogue for the discussion of school going forward that actively involves students and staff.”

The topic was for discussion only at the meeting, and left many questions about the board’s next steps as COVID cases last week reached numbers not seen in Arizona since July.

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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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