The J.O. Combs Unified School District in Arizona had planned to resume in-person learning on Monday, August 17. That changed, however, when nearly a fifth of the district’s teachers and staff called out sick for the first day. As a result, both in-person and virtual classes have been suspended, and the district doesn’t know when they’ll return.
The district had decided the previous Tuesday, August 11, to resume in-person instruction, reports NBC News. In a letter to families, Superintendent Gregory A. Wyman said the district decided after taking state health recommendations into account, as well as feedback from parents.
“This year’s instructional model has been designed around the notion of parent choice, and will allow students who feel comfortable returning in-person to do so, and learn simultaneously with those who choose to remain virtual,” Wyman said.
Within days, however, the district withdrew the decision after dozens of teachers indicated that they did not feel safe returning.
“[W]e have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns,” Wyman said in a follow-up letter sent on Friday, August 14.
IMPORTANT NOTICE FOR ALL FAMILIES: All instruction, including in-person and virtual learning, will be canceled on Monday due to insufficient staffing. Read the full update here: https://t.co/3ZPzjysrQV pic.twitter.com/mSAe55W1h4— JOCombsUSD (@JOCombsUSD) August 14, 2020
The Guardian reports that 109 teachers and other staff called in sick by late Friday afternoon — roughly 20% of the district’s total staff.
“Due to these insufficient staffing levels, schools will not be able to re-open on Monday as planned,” Wyman said. “This means that all classes, including virtual learning, will be canceled.”
In another letter sent to parents on Monday, August 17, Wyman said that the closure would continue until at least Wednesday the 19th. On that day, the district’s governing board plans to hold a meeting to discuss next steps.
“We are fully aware that a timely resolution to this matter is critical, and are committed to providing updates to our families as soon as they are available,” the letter read.
Meanwhile, Wyman described the staff shortage as a “sick out” in an interview given Monday, August 17. He also lamented the lack of national re-opening plans for schools like there are for restaurants and gyms.
“For some reason, public education doesn’t get a mandate,” Wyman said. “We will ultimately get to a solution but we are still working on it.”
Some teachers and advocates in the area are calling for educators to stage similar sickouts across the country.
“It was great to see J.O. Combs school district came together and used their collective power,” said Kelly Fisher, a Phoenix-based teacher and protest organizer. “I’d love to see a nationwide sick out.”
At a board meeting on Wednesday, August 19, members voted to return to online voting starting on Thursday, August 20. The board is also set to meet again on August 27 to review state safety regulations for re-opening.