Schools in the J.O. Combs Unified School District were scheduled to open on Monday. However, the school district in Arizona was forced to cancel the reopening after teachers staged a "sickout" as a protest against going back to work during the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 100 teachers and other staff members called in sick ahead of the reopening of schools in a suburb outside of Phoenix. The sickout, which included about 20% of the school district's staff, forced the school district to cancel all in-person classes as well as all virtual learning.
Gregory Wyman, superintendent of the J.O. Combs Unified School District, wrote a letter to parents on Friday.
"We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students," the letter said. "In response, we have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns."
"Due to these insufficient staffing levels, schools will not be able to reopen on Monday as planned," Wyman wrote. "At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume."
The school district plans to provide parents with an update by 5:00 p.m. on Monday.
Some teachers, including Phoenix kindergarten teacher Kelley Fisher, hope the Arizona sickout will lead to a nationwide movement of teachers refusing to go to work.
"It was great to see J.O. Combs school district came together and used their collective power," Fisher told Reuters. "I'd love to see a nationwide sick out."
Phoenix resident Christina DeRouchey, whose son is in first grade, argued that it's time to reopen the schools.
"We just want the choice that is best physically, mentally and most importantly emotionally for our children," DeRouchey said.
The J.O. Combs Unified School District is located in Pinal County, which has met two out of the three benchmarks that the Arizona Department of Health Services recommends before schools reopen. Gov. Doug Ducey (R) let school districts decide when they feel it is safe to reopen and in what capacity.
Pinal County has a population of 462,789, according to the U.S. Census figures from July 1, 2019. There have been 8,665 confirmed coronavirus cases and 166 COVID-19 deaths, according to the Pinal County website.
COVID-19 cases and deaths in Arizona have recently declined, according to Tucson.com:
Statewide COVID-19 deaths totaled 548 from July 12 to July 18, according to data published by the Arizona Department of Health Services, as of Saturday. The next week, COVID-19 deaths fell by about 18% to 449 deaths between July 19 and July 25. It was the first time COVID-19 deaths fell in Arizona since mid-May.
"For the first time I'm confident that we've had a peak in deaths," Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor with the University of Arizona's Zuckerman College of Public Health, said. "Things are getting markedly better."
Pandemic analyst Trevor Bedford from the University of Washington believes Arizona is one of three states where herd immunity could be causing cases to decrease.
"Thus, I believe the substantial epidemics in Arizona, Florida and Texas will leave enough immunity to assist in keeping COVID-19 controlled," Bedford wrote. However, he cautioned that "this level of immunity is not compatible with a full return to societal behavior as existed before the pandemic."
"Due to these insufficient staffing levels, schools will not be able to reopen on Monday as planned. This means that all classes, including virtual learning, will be canceled. At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume," he said.
In July, a teachers union in North Carolina refused to go back to work until sweeping social programs were enacted. The teachers union demanded universal health care, welfare benefits for illegal immigrants, and a suspension of rents and mortgages.
Also in July, the primary teachers union in Los Angeles stated it could not reopen unless certain demands were met, including defunding of police, the end of charter schools, and the granting of financial support to undocumented students and their families.