Officials: Classes at J.O. Combs Unified School District cancelled for August 18, 19 amid staff callout

Classes will remain cancelled for one far East Valley school district in the coming two days, according to officials.

On August 17, officials with J.O. Combs Unified School District say classes will remain cancelled through August 19.

"While we continue to work diligently on this matter, we also continue to receive a high volume of staff absences, and in turn will have to cancel all classes on Tuesday as well as Wednesday," read a portion of the statement. "We’re sensitive to the feedback of our staff, as well as our community, and are working nonstop to find solutions to the polarizing and challenging issues currently facing school districts throughout the state and country."

August 17 would have been the first day of class for students at the district, but on August 14, school district officials announced their decision to cancel classes on August 17, due to insufficient staffing levels.

"We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students. In response, we have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns," read a portion of the statement released on August 14.

On August 17, school district officials say a Governing Board meeting will be held on August 19 to discuss the next steps and options for a return to school.

According to the district's website, the district's five K-6 schools, as well as its middle school and high school, serve families living in the San Tan Valley area.

Parents and teachers react

Earlier in August, the state released benchmarks for schools to meet for safe in-person instruction. Not one county has met those benchmarks yet.

Lila Gonzalez, a parent and former teacher in the district, says she felt relief when she read the superintendent's letter. "I was happy for the teachers. Like, go teachers, take charge," she said.

Savrina Diaz, also a parent who formerly worked as a teacher in the district, explained her reaction to the news, saying, "From what I've heard, teachers were handed thermometers, a mask, a rag and a spray bottle. That's how they're preparing."

Three of her children are signed up for virtual learning in the district, saying staff isn't well equipped for the pandemic.

Other parents disagree, pointing to smaller class sizes and mask-wearing on campus.

"I think the school environment is going to be safe for them to be back and it's time. These kids deserve to be in school with their teachers," says parent, Amy Barthell, explaining that her freshman's mental health is a priority.

Adding, "I think the mental health of not being able to have that normalcy in returning to school and receiving their education is much higher than the risk of getting COVID."

The district's pandemic response plan includes social distancing in class and daily temperature checks, however the 109 staff members who are out Monday just don't think that's enough.

There are a total of 600 staff in the district and 250 are teachers

A student-led rally is planned at Combs High School on the morning of Monday, Aug. 17, to support the teachers who do show up.

Controversies mount over in-person classes

The issue of in-person classes has been controversial in the far East Valley, with the Queen Creek Unified School District experiencing growing tension over plans to begin in-person classes on August 17.

Seven teachers have resigned since the board's vote, according to the district's public relations director. Some teachers in the district, however, say the actual number is closer to 40.

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