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SAN TAN VALLEY — Expressing confidence that Pinal County’s COVID-19 numbers were heading in the right direction, the J.O. Combs Unified School District Governing Board voted 4-1 Thursday night to reopen school buildings on Sept. 8 for those who wished to return.

Chad McLeod, who made the motion, said schools will open for “our version of hybrid” learning, meaning those who choose to may attend in person for five days a week, while those who want to continue online learning at home may do that. He included in his motion that no school will close after that date unless directed by the health department.

“Knowing the metrics are quite close, and recognizing that these metrics will likely fluctuate up and down, we can’t submit ourselves to constantly being in a yoyo — whether we’re in class or we’re not,” McLeod said.

The board voted after meeting for almost 75 minutes behind closed doors.

The first of the state health metrics for reopening schools in a limited capacity calls for declining COVID-19 cases in the county — or less than 100 new cases per 100,000 people — for two consecutive weeks. Board Clerk Bob D’Elena said Pinal County only missed this by five or six people. “To me, that’s so close that it’s almost negligible.”

As for the second benchmark, in which the percentage of people testing positive for the virus is below 7% for two consecutive weeks, “it’s moving downward. It doesn’t say up there, but it’s 6%.” Other numbers “look to be moving in the right direction,” D’Elena said.

“Although these aren’t the exact numbers I was looking for, I’m thinking we’re close enough. And I’m tending to lean in that direction, unless I hear an argument to convince me the other way.”

The third metric, hospital visits for COVID-like illness are less than 10% for two consecutive weeks, has been achieved in Pinal County.

Combs district teachers and other employees were surveyed on their willingness to return to school, as board President Shelly Hargis requested at last week’s meeting. Superintendent Greg Wyman reported almost half, 46.1% (258), said they’d return for in-person learning even if state health metrics are not met. Another 39.5% (221) said they’d return when the metrics are met; 14.5% (81) said they had additional concerns even if metrics are met.

Among teachers, 36.5% (80) said they’d return to regular classes even if metrics are not met; 42% (92) reported they would return when metrics are met. Another 21.5% (47) had additional concerns even if metrics are met. These concerns included protective equipment and cleanliness; training on the district’s pandemic response plan; class sizes and social distancing; and enforcement of masks, temperature checks and other safety measures.

Fifteen or so parents and teachers also commented to the board either in person or by email Thursday. Many reported their children are struggling with distance learning while a few others urged the board to follow the science and not reopen too soon. Margaret Smith said her younger child doesn’t like distance learning, but as a parent at high-risk of COVID-19, she needs to know how the district intends to keep her safe.

Thomas Chavez complained of a teacher using her online classroom for her “political agenda,” stating her opinions on the dangers of the pandemic and global warming.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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