Students in Apache Junction Unified School District return to class amid ongoing COVID-19 pandemic

The start of the 2020-2021 school year is not like a typical school year for students at one far East Valley school district due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in Arizona.

July 21 marks the first day of class for students at the Apache Junction Unified School District. On that same day, officials with the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,500 new COVID-19 cases and 134 new deaths.

As of July 21, Arizona has a total of 148,683 positive COVID-19 cases, and a death toll of 2,918.

An online-only start to the new school year

Apache Junction Unified School District may be the first district in the country to start the fall semester amid the coronavirus pandemic, and classes are conducted exclusively online.

District officials say they practiced online learning during summer school, so they felt fairly prepared.

For the first day of class, teachers are alone in a classroom, teaching to students on a screen.

"A lot of teachers have been teaching for a long time. It’s like this is your first time teaching. You’re going into something is totally new," said Tara Backues, who teaches the fourth grade.

Some challenges remain

The first challenge is still a work in progress: making sure each student has a computer and Internet access.

"We’ve spent the last several months ordering computers and hotspots to make sure we are prepared," said School District Superintendent Dr. Krista Anderson.

There is no teacher shortage, and 93% of staff members returned to work. Teachers say attendance was up, and students were excited.

"The kids are so resilient, and they just have that intrinsic motivation to learn," said Amy Hopkins, who teaches the first grade.

There were a few technical glitches, mostly learning the new online program, especially for the younger students. Meanwhile, the older ones sometimes teaching the teacher. 

"If I got stuck, I’d be like, 'Johnny, can you please explain to the class how you found the thumbs up button?' and he would explain and everybody was coming out with their thumbs up, the rest of class,"  said Angel Wilson, who teaches the eighth grade.

The challenge now is to keep students learning, while keeping everyone safe, and hopefully get back into classrooms next month, because even the best computer program is no match for teachers and students, together. 

Dr. Anderson says they will need more staff to answer calls on navigating the technical issues like the ones seen on July 21. They also sent a questionnaire to parents to see what worked and what didn’t, so they can tweak things, moving forward.

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COVID-19 symptoms

Symptoms for coronavirus COVID-19 include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. These, of course, are similar to the common cold and flu. 

Expect a common cold to start out with a sore or scratchy throat, cough, runny and/or stuffy nose. Flu symptoms are more intense and usually come on suddenly, and can include a high fever. 

Symptoms of COVID-19 may appear more slowly. They usually include fever, a dry cough and noticeable shortness of breath, according to the World Health Organization. A minority of cases develop pneumonia, and the disease is especially worrisome for the elderly and those with other medical problems such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes or heart conditions.

RELATED: Is it the flu, a cold or COVID-19? Different viruses present similar symptoms

Right now there's one big difference between flu and coronavirus: A vaccine exists to help prevent the flu and it's not too late to get it. It won't protect you from catching the coronavirus, but may put you in a better position to fight it.

To protect yourself, wash your hands well and often, keep them away from your face, and avoid crowds and standing close to people.

And if you do find yourself showing any of these flu or coronavirus symptoms - don't go straight to your doctor's office. That just risks making more people sick, officials urge. Call ahead, and ask if you need to be seen and where.

COVID-19 resources


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (In Spanish/En Espanol)

Arizona Department of Health Services (In Spanish/En Español)

MAP: Worldwide interactive Coronavirus case data