A school district in Arizona that was set to open for in-person teaching on Monday was forced to cancel all classes after teachers staged a “sickout” to protest unsafe working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students," Gregory Wyman, superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified School District, said in a letter to parents on Friday. "In response, we have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns."
The district's governing board had voted to resume in-person education on Monday despite failing to meet the metrics recommended by the state, according to a statement from J.O. Combs School District staff members that was provided to BuzzFeed News.
"Any reopening to in-person school before the guideline metrics developed by the AZ Department of Health represent a serious disregard for the safety of both students and staff," the statement from staff members said.
After reviewing the district's pandemic plan, a majority of the staff members felt that it was unsafe for them and students to return to their campuses on Monday, their statement said.
The district announced Friday that all of Monday's classes, including virtual learning, would be canceled after at least 109 staff members called in sick, the Arizona Republic reported.
"Due to these insufficient staffing levels, schools will not be able to reopen on Monday as planned," Wyman said in his letter to parents.
Wyman also said he was unsure when classes would resume because the district could not predict how long the absences would last.
In their statement, the staff members of the school district said "the risk of infection is too high" until Pinal County meets the state metrics set by the Arizona Department of Health determining that it was safe to reopen.
The staff members also reported a lack of recommended sanitization supplies to clean school sites and the lack of essential supplies to safely reopen campuses.
"Until we receive the necessary supplies to maintain our inventory, we will remain at a higher risk of infection of our students and staff," their statement said.
They also said staff members had not received "adequate and clear procedures" about their responsibilities in handling students returning to campus and that there had been no staff training on COVID-19 policies and sanitization procedures.
The staff members urged the school board to approve Wyman's recommendation to continue virtual learning through the first quarter to allow time for the state metrics to be met, for back-ordered supplies to arrive, and for staff to be properly trained.
"Please know that we are acutely aware of how polarizing this issue is, and how challenging these ongoing developments are for our entire community," Wyman's letter said.
The question of whether to reopen schools for in-person education has become a political flashpoint across the country as parents, teachers, and school districts attempt to balance the safety of reopening with other priorities.
Teachers in New York City have also threatened to protest with a sickout if the city decides to reopen for in-person classes.
In Arizona, officials have recommended that schools look at three benchmarks to assess how the virus is spreading in the community before deciding to reopen, including the number of new cases in the area, the percentage of people testing positive, and the number of hospitalizations. However, the state has not required schools to make decisions based on the benchmarks, the Arizona Republic reported.
The sickout protest in the J.O. Combs Unified School District comes after several teachers in the neighboring Queens Creek district resigned following a vote to resume in-person education there.
Sharon Tuttle, an organizer with Arizona Educators United, a grassroots group that has helped organize protests against reopening schools, told BuzzFeed News that teachers who resign could face fines or petitions to have their licenses revoked.
“We are just starting to see how this affects children, how contagious they are, and that they can get it,” said Tuttle, adding that the group is advocating for science-based metrics to determine when to reopen.
Tuttle said comparisons of teachers to other professions were "ridiculous."
“This is a horrible situation for everybody,” she said. “Everybody is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean you make bad decisions."