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SAN TAN VALLEY — Students in J.O. Combs Unified School District could return to in-person classes on Aug. 31 if the spread of COVID-19 has slowed enough per state health department metrics. The school board will hold a special meeting Aug. 27 to make this determination.

Meanwhile, teachers resumed virtual instruction on Thursday, Aug. 20.

The board chose these dates after hearing numerous community comments in the course of a three-hour special meeting Wednesday, Aug. 19. The board met behind closed doors for more than an hour before voting. Only board President Shelly Hargis voted against the plan. She commented toward the end of the meeting.

“The governor gave us some guidelines (for a safe reopening). … I think we’ve met two of them” and are close to meeting the third, Hargis said. “I feel that before COVID hit that our district was doing a huge push for the mental and physical well-being of our kids and the suicide rate.” There was a rash of East Valley teen suicides a couple of years ago. “I don’t think that’s in play anymore,” Hargis said.

Although she cited her sister as one person who wants to continue virtual learning, Hargis said she believes the majority of her constituents want students to return in-person. “That was my vote then; that’s how it will be now; however, there’s no learning going on right now, either. When we have 100-plus teachers call out (absent), we don’t have the coverage to do in-person. …

“I do want virtual learning to start effective immediately tomorrow,” Hargis said. “But I would like to work towards finding a solution to get in-person as soon as we can.” She said at Wednesday’s meeting she wanted the district to survey every employee the following day to learn who is willing to come back to school and who is not.

The previously announced first day of school on Aug. 17 was canceled due to a high number of staff absences, estimated at 40%.

“They want us to be responsible for your kids,” David Nelson, a teacher and president of the Combs Education Association, told the board. He turned to the audience to continue: “We’re trying to be responsible for your kids.”

Board members called for order a couple of times as audience members jeered Nelson.

“I’ve sat here, and I’ve heard the insults and the accusations (that) it’s political — it’s not. We set a plan based on guidelines, those guidelines have not been met, and we made the decision (to open school) anyway,” an agitated Nelson said. “I’m in that classroom. I have a bottle of blue stuff and a rag. … I don’t have gloves, I don’t have the things you want me to protect your kids with.

“This is the problem; this is why we did what we did,” he continued. “And it’s not just union members. … We don’t feel like we’re adequately prepared to protect your kids or protect ourselves. We haven’t met the benchmarks. That’s what this is about. We want to be back in front of our kids too, but not at the risk of anybody’s life. That’s the bottom line.”

But Pamela Morris told the board that teachers signed a contract to come to school and teach.

“They need to be held accountable” and not rewarded “by tying the hands of the board and the parents,” she said. Morris told the board her granddaughter in the third grade is consistently on the principal’s honor roll at Combs Traditional Academy but can’t learn online. “Just realize these kids are suffering.”

Superintendent Gregory Wyman said late Wednesday in a letter to the community that the district is in a difficult position.

“We know that the recent days have been difficult for our students and families, and that the decision made tonight will continue to generate emotion on both sides,” he said. “It is the unfortunate reality that no decision will satisfy everyone, but we will continue to make the right decisions for those who matter most: our students.”

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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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