SAN TAN VALLEY, AZ — It's a polarizing topic. Sending kids back to school or keeping them at home has been a tough decision for everyone: educators, students, parents and more.
The J.O. Combs community thought they had their answer last week, when the school board voted to start in-person learning on August 17, despite not meeting state health benchmarks.
Then, teachers called out sick. Too many, in fact. The district said they didn't have enough to staff schools that day, so they canceled classes all together.
The district released a new statement Monday afternoon, saying, "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."
"This whole thing is just really frustrating," said Isaiah Bustamante, a senior at Combs High School. “I have no idea what’s going on. I don’t even feel like I’m in high school anymore.”
Isaiah showed up at a special board meeting Wednesday to find out if and when he'll get to dive back into his last year of high school. “I was excited. I really wanted to go back, and I feel like to me it seems like it is safe to go back," he said. "We have an option to do online or in person, but the teachers don’t have that same option."
It's part of the reason fueling the issue. "We don’t feel we have the adequate PPE inside, and we haven’t been told how to use any of it," said Dr. David Nelson, a psychology teacher at Combs High School, and President of the Combs Education Association. "We haven’t met the benchmarks the experts say put us at the minimal acceptable risk level. Why risk our kids? It doesn’t make sense to us.”
Wednesday, J.O. Combs leaders met to discuss how to resolve the issue, but acknowledged that without enough teachers, their hands were tied.
The board voted 4-1 to resume virtual learning Thursday, and delay in-person learning to August 31 at the earliest.
The decision, angering parents like David Brennan. “My kids, they’re half asleep trying to do this virtual stuff," he said. “[Teachers] have a contract, hold them to that. Fine them for leaving.”
The board says they'll meet again on August 27 to re-evaluate where they stack up on the state’s public health benchmarks, before going ahead with in-person learning.
The district also plans to send all employees a survey to determine how many employees would be willing to return in person, and how many would not.
Earlier this week, a senior at Combs High School organized a march in support of the teachers who didn't call out sick, and in support of reopening Arizona schools for in-person learning.
Watch Air15 video of the march in the player below.
"It's my senior year, I'm trying to make it into my college, get my GPA up, but really online school is not the way to do it," said Tristan Smith, who said he understands the teachers' decision to call out, but led other students and parents in chants such as, "We need our teachers!" and "We want our teachers in person!"
The march began at Combs High School, making its way over to the J. O. Combs District Office, where protesters were greeted by Superintendent Dr. Gregory Wyman.
"I know everyone wants real simplistic solutions to complex problems," said Wyman. "With the lack of comprehensive or coherent plan at the state or federal levels, makes it difficult."
Wyman said a survey of the district showed it is a 55 to 45 percent split favoring in-person learning over virtual learning, which is coming with its own obstacles.
"You have situations where some students are having social or emotional issues because they're not in school and it becomes a very complicated answer," he said. "If it was not complicated, I'm going to tell you, there would be a solution at a much higher level."
A second grade teacher at Ranch Elementary School said she doesn't blame her colleagues for calling out, but said she is willing to risk her own health, even being immuno-compromised herself, in order to have her students back in the classroom.
"I speak for everyone when I say teachers love to teach," said Theresa Sneed, who has been teaching for 20 years. "Why am I willing to risk it? It's definitely a much more effective way of teaching."
The march of around 50 students and parents lasted for nearly an hour and a half. Many parents said the teachers who called out should be fired.
A teacher in the district told ABC15 that part of the reason so many teachers and staff called out sick was because they felt unprepared to teach virtual and in-person students simultaneously.
In addition to pushing back in-person learning, the board also voted down a resolution that would have forgiven a $1,000 fee for teachers -- $2,500 for administrative staff -- who chose not to work this year due to COVID-19, hence breaking their contract with the district.
The Combs Education Association said, "The association continues to meet daily to discuss the outcomes of negotiation meetings with Wyman and how we want to move forward."
In a statement sent to ABC15, the Combs Education Association outlined reasoning as to why the coordinated effort of teachers called out sick on Monday. First, the association does not believe the health metrics in Pinal County sufficiently meet the guidelines set by AZDHS.
"Secondly, not all campuses within the J. O. Combs School District are fully equipped with the recommended sanitization supplies necessary to keep our school sites properly cleansed," said the Combs Education Association.