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First grade teacher Yolanda Vasquez stands in protest along with other teachers and counselors in front of the Hillsborough County Schools District Office on July 16, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo: Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

After Organizing Mass 'Sick-Out,' Arizona Teachers and School Staff Applauded for 'Bold' Collective Action to Stop Unsafe Reopening

"Teachers are in a position to have a voice, and they just weren't being heard."

Julia Conley

Teachers and school staff members in a Phoenix suburb were praised by progressives and public health experts on Monday for their "bold" decision to call in sick en masse, forcing their school district to reverse its plan to return to in-person classes. 

By last Friday, 109 teachers and staffers—about 20% of the workforce at J.O. Combs Unified School District in San Tan Valley, Arizona—had informed the district they would not be reporting to school on Monday, despite the school board's recent vote to reopen schools.

"A teacher sickout in Arizona has closed their unsafe schools. Let's hope their example spreads across the country."
—Eric Blanc, educator

District superintendent Dr. Greg Wyman, following the guidance of the Arizona Department of Health Services, recommended to the school board last week that virtual learning continue through the first quarter of the academic year. State health officials have recommended that schools refrain from fully reopening until certain benchmarks are reached, including the Covid-19 testing positivity rate falling below 7% in their county and the rate of new cases per 100,000 people falling below 100 per week for two weeks. 

Flouting the public health guidance and Wyman's recommendation, the board voted 3-2 to return to in-person schooling.

"We have received an overwhelming response from staff indicating that they do not feel safe returning to classrooms with students," Wyman wrote to parents in the district on Friday. "In response, we have received a high volume of staff absences for Monday citing health and safety concerns." 

The educators' refusal to return to business as usual "makes sense," tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, considering Arizona's current coronavirus case numbers.

No school districts in the Phoenix area have met the health department's benchmarks for safely reopening; while the state's coronavirus numbers have dropped significantly since early July, when Arizona reported a seven-day average of nearly 4,000 cases, the state was still identified by the White House as a "red zone" which needed to take strict precautions to curb the outbreak last month. 

The Trump administration's push to reopen schools across the country amid the pandemic has sparked outrage among teachers, students, and parents. As the administration insists that students and teachers should be back in school, President Donald Trump has scoffed at proposals to fund safety measures such as social distancing, masks and other personal protective equipment, and ventilation—claiming instead that children aren't at risk for contracting or spreading Covid-19.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association reported last week that nearly 100,000 children in the U.S. had tested positive for the coronavirus in the last two weeks of July—before schools even began opening. School districts in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Nebraska have been forced to quickly reverse course in recent days after Covid-19 outbreaks were detected following their reopenings. 

Teachers and parents in the Phoenix area applauded the educators in San Tan Valley for insisting their school district follow public health guidance. 

"I was proud of them because they do have to have a voice," Lila Gonzalez, a parent and former teacher in the district who is keeping her own children in online schooling this semester, told local news affiliate CBS 5. "Teachers are in a position to have a voice, and they just weren't being heard."

The "sick-out" in the district renewed calls for a nationwide teachers' strike focused on demanding safety protocols and funding if schools are to reopen. 

"It was great to see J.O. Combs school district came together and used their collective power," Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher who has led protests over the issue in recent weeks, told Reuters. "I'd love to see a nationwide sick-out."

Eric Blanc, an educator and author of "Red State Revolt," a book about the #RedForEd movement, also expressed hope that the example set by the teachers in San Tan Valley will "spread across the country."

The district's indication that it would have to reverse or amend its reopening plans following the sick-out was taken by labor organizer Sara Nelson as a sign that through collective action, teachers across the country can keep schoolchildren and communities safe in the fall.

"Solidarity works and teachers lead the way," Nelson tweeted.

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