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Arizona schools attempt reopening amid outcry, resignations

August 17, 2020 GMT
Michael Bayard, far left, Ashleigh Bayard, Shelli Boggs and Dawn Oliphant, hold signs outside Queen Creek High School in Queen Creek, Ariz., on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 to welcome students back on the first day of school. The first day of school, a normally happy ritual, was fraught with conflict Monday at some schools opening in Arizona, echoing debates across the country over the risks of holding all in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Terry Tang)
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Michael Bayard, far left, Ashleigh Bayard, Shelli Boggs and Dawn Oliphant, hold signs outside Queen Creek High School in Queen Creek, Ariz., on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 to welcome students back on the first day of school. The first day of school, a normally happy ritual, was fraught with conflict Monday at some schools opening in Arizona, echoing debates across the country over the risks of holding all in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Terry Tang)
1 of 3
Michael Bayard, far left, Ashleigh Bayard, Shelli Boggs and Dawn Oliphant, hold signs outside Queen Creek High School in Queen Creek, Ariz., on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020 to welcome students back on the first day of school. The first day of school, a normally happy ritual, was fraught with conflict Monday at some schools opening in Arizona, echoing debates across the country over the risks of holding all in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Terry Tang)

QUEEN CREEK, Ariz. (AP) — The first day of school, a normally happy ritual, was fraught with conflict Monday at some schools opening in Arizona, echoing debates across the country over the risks of holding all in-person instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In some districts, worried teachers resigned or called in sick. While Queen Creek Unified School District opened its doors, J.O. Combs Unified School District in neighboring Pinal County canceled its planned reopening Monday after an overwhelming number of staff said they planned to be absent.

Dawn Oliphant, president of the Queen Creek High School’s Parent Teacher Organization, was among a few parents greeting a line of cars and school buses carrying staff and students with signs of support. Neither she nor her two sons, a senior and a sophomore, were nervous.

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“As far as feeling safe, they’re fine,” Oliphant said. “We’ve gone over their protocols with them. They have their hand sanitizer with them. They know how important it is to wear their face coverings.”

The school board in Queen Creek, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southeast of Phoenix, voted last week to offer in-person instruction full-time. Jacob Frantz, a chemistry teacher at the high school, resigned soon after the vote. Frantz, 30, said the decision was agonizing but he couldn’t physically bring himself to teach in a classroom with the same number of students as usual.

“This whole school year feels like one big experiment we’re running on our community and I don’t trust the people running the experiment,” said Frantz, who is president of the Queen Creek Education Association “We are guaranteed statistically to have people infected on that campus right now.”

Frantz said he knows of a dozen others who quit since the vote and said roughly 30 others have left since June, when the district first proposed doing all in-person instruction.

Stephanie Ingersoll, a spokeswoman for the district, said media reports have inaccurately reported the number of teachers resigning. She said “a small number” gave notice after the school board vote.

Michael and Ashleigh Bayard said it won’t bother them if their son, a sophomore, has to be taught by substitutes in some classes because of teacher resignations.

“They’re going to learn more from a substitute in school than they’re gonna learn sitting in front of a computer screen,” Ashleigh Bayard said.

Frantz said he’s especially worried about his colleagues who have no choice but to keep teaching.

“We have single moms who can’t leave their job,” Frantz said. “They’re high risk but they can’t leave their health insurance. They can’t pay the $2,000 (district) penalty to leave their contract.”

The parents, however, said they do sympathize with teachers with underlying health conditions who felt they had to walk away.

“They have to make the decision that’s best for them and their family,” Oliphant said. “I don’t hold anything against them.”

Arizona officials reported an additional 468 cases of the coronavirus and zero deaths on Monday, marking the first time in three weeks that the state hasn’t reported a death from the virus. Since the pandemic began, Arizona has reported more than 194,000 cases of the virus and 4,506 deaths.

COVID-19 related hospitalizations and ventilator use also continued to trend downward. Those numbers peaked about a month ago following Gov. Doug Ducey’s lifting of stay-home orders in May.