At first, the J.O. Combs School District told its staff that classes would resume this week. Then, over 100 Arizona teachers and staff members called in sick, refusing to work in conditions that would put them and their students in danger. Monday morning was supposed to be the first day of school — but district superintendent Gregory A. Wyman announced a few days prior that classes would not resume in the near future, if at all.
Citing "insufficient staffing levels," the superintendent wrote to parents in a letter published online Friday that all classes, even virtual instruction, would be cancelled. "At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume," Wyman wrote.
Throughout the duration of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., teachers, educational experts, and the Trump administration have all announced what they see as the best way to reopen schools for the fall semester. Some have suggested alternative schedules, reduced class sizes, sanitizing classrooms, and of course, wearing masks during instruction. But each of these solutions requires a level of funding that most public school districts simply don't have, and fundamentally, asking teachers to resume instruction also means asking that they accept a level of risk that could actually lead to death.
Throughout the month of August, a staggered restart of public schools across the country has demonstrated the stakes of returning to school and enforcing coronavirus mitigation strategies. In just the last two weeks of July, nearly 100,000 children tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, pictures of jam-packed school hallways in which just a handful of students were masked went viral. At the university level, many institutions changed course altogether, demanding that undergraduate students remain home instead of heading back to campus.
Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association teacher's union, said that the J.O. Combs School District had not met safety recommendations for reopening, per The Arizona Republic. In fact, no county in the state has met benchmarks for reopening schools. And according to BuzzFeed News, staff members reported lacking the necessary tools for reopening, such supplies to sanitize classrooms. "Until we receive the necessary supplies to maintain our inventory, we will remain at a higher risk of infection of our students and staff," a statement from the teaching staff read.
With 600 staff members serving in the district, 250 of whom are teachers, the 109 staff members who announced that they would not be showing up to school created quite a dent in the school's instructional capacity. It also sent a message. The "sick-out" follows a wave of resignations in the past month and a half — 23 to be exact — in response to the district's vote over the summer to reopen for in-person classes.
Kelley Fisher, an Arizona kindergarten teacher who had led protests previously on behalf of teachers and staff, told Reuters, "It was great to see J.O. Combs School District came together and used their collective power. I’d love to see a nationwide sick out."
Adding to the tension and confusion about how to proceed are the desires of parents and school board members that are at odds with teachers across the state. Parents had previously pushed J.O. Combs to reopen for in-person instruction, as well as the neighboring school district, where a vote "to reopen in Queen Creek was met with thunderous applause from parents," per The Arizona Republic.
As Wyman wrote in his Aug.14 statement: "Please know that we are acutely aware of how polarizing this issue is, and how challenging these ongoing developments are for our entire community."