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With the Virus Surging, Arizona Teachers Protest by Calling In Sick

In a reflection of debates nationwide over whether to keep classrooms open during the current surge in coronavirus cases, about 100 teachers in Arizona’s third-largest school district staged a sickout on Friday, demanding that schools close after winter break and stay remote until the region’s infection rate declines.

The protest in the Chandler Unified School District, a sprawling string of suburbs east of Phoenix with 46,000 students, was planned in opposition of the district’s recently announced plan to continue with in-person instruction in January despite a steep rise in infections in the region, according to a letter that teachers sent to the district on Thursday.

“When we returned to in-person learning, teachers and parents did so with the understanding that if any ONE metric went into the red, we would return to virtual learning,” the letter states. “We were also assured that we would not be expected to teach virtually and in-person at the same time. Both of those promises have now been broken.”

The sickout represents a small fraction of the district’s 2,000 teachers, and the district said it had found enough replacement teachers to keep all its schools open. But it underscores the anxiety of many teachers in a county that has reached new peaks in coronavirus infections and deaths in recent weeks.

Both the state and Maricopa County, home to the Chandler school district, set single-day case records within the past week, and Maricopa County added more cases on Thursday than almost any other county in the United States. This month, both parents of a Chandler High School student died hours apart of complications related to Covid-19.

The protest also reflects the contentious debate over the safety of in-person instruction that is playing out in many of the nation’s school districts as another wave of the pandemic continues to wash across many states.

Responses have differed widely from state to state and even district to district, as elected officials, teachers’ unions, parents and school administrators have debated how to balance health and safety issues with concerns that students are losing out educationally under remote instruction. The nation has about 13,000 school districts, most of which are run by independently elected school boards.

In November, Kentucky ordered all schools, including private ones, to close temporarily and shift to remote learning, while Michigan ordered all high schools to halt in-person instruction temporarily. But many districts in Georgia, Texas and Florida, where Republican governors have been adamant about keeping schools open, have resisted closing classrooms even as virus cases surged this fall.

Providence, R.I., Los Angeles and Miami-Dade County have all seen cases rise sharply in recent weeks — yet all have responded differently.

Providence has reduced density in its high schools by shifting 10th and 11th graders to remote learning, but has kept ninth and 12th graders attending every other day. Los Angeles Unified School District, the country’s second-largest, has only held remote classes this semester and will do so for the foreseeable future. And the Miami-Dade school district continues to have students who opted into in-person instruction visit classrooms five days a week.

The patchwork of approaches is even visible within Arizona. Some of the Chandler school district’s neighbors in Maricopa County have shifted to virtual or hybrid instruction during the surge, plan to in the near future, or have postponed reopening.

Paradise Valley Unified School District, north of Phoenix, moved to remote instruction just before Thanksgiving because of a rising tide of virus cases. The district’s superintendent resigned this week, reportedly because of threats from people who want classrooms reopened.

Chandler Unified School District began the year fully remote, and staggered the return to classrooms by age groups. But it also allowed students to enroll in its “online academy,” a separate all-remote curriculum that has attracted between 9,000 and 10,000 students, district officials said.

On Wednesday, when the school board voted to maintain in-person instruction, it also agreed to allow in-person students in seventh through 12th grades to take classes remotely for at least the first two weeks of January, using the same online platform that serves students in quarantine. The district requires social distancing and face coverings in all schools, officials said.

But the teachers who joined the protest want the district to go completely remote in January and stay closed until the virus transmission rate has declined to what they deem a safer level. They have also requested a role in the process of deciding between in-person and remote instruction.

“Our educators are exhausted and stretched to their breaking point,” said the Chandler Education Association, a teacher advocacy group.

More than three-quarters of the district’s students are attending all of their classes in-person, with the rest receiving all-remote instruction.

“We encourage staff to report to work in the best interest of their students and colleagues,” the district said in a statement. “We understand this is a stressful time and invite teachers to work directly with administration as we seek ways to lessen any negative impact on them.”

Kate Taylor contributed reporting.

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