Justin Nelson is the father of a 4-year-old daughter who's starting kindergarten in Queen Creek. The local school board's vote to resume in-person instruction next Monday in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic has him worried.
What if there's an outbreak at his children's schools? What if his daughter brings COVID-19 back into their household? What if his kid's grandparents get it from his daughter and become hospitalized? The risks are immense, in his view — especially with reports coming out of Georgia that a school district quarantined over 1,000 students shortly after reopening. Meanwhile, new research suggests that children can carry the virus.
"I don’t want my child to get sick," Nelson said. "They still carry the disease. As soon as she comes home, she can spread it to my wife or me, or her grandparents that see her occasionally."
The move by the Queen Creek Unified School District to reopen schools, approved by the board on August 11, is an outlier in the region. Only a handful of school districts in the state have opted to resume in-person instruction on August 17.
"The fact that we’re opening so soon makes me feel that those kids are guinea pigs," Nelson said. " I don't want my kids to serve as a test case of whether it’s too soon."
Nelson is one of many parents who fiercely disagree with the decision taken by the Queen Creek district to reopen its schools. The school district should meet benchmarks outlined by state health officials before pushing ahead with reopening, they say. (As of August 13, no county in Arizona had met the state's criteria for reopening schools.) But there's equally strong support among parents on the other side of the issue in Queen Creek, some of whom downplay the severity of COVID-19 and argue that restricting in-person instruction infringes on personal freedoms.
"We love the freedom of choice and that is all we are here to ask the board for," said one pro-reopening speaker at the August 11 school board meeting prior to the vote. "They want to stop us from being able to make the choice for our families ... Let the teachers and parents have a choice. We know that the group that is trying to deny the freedom of others is a vocal minority."
Reopening schools has been one of the country's most polarizing issues during the pandemic. President Donald Trump took up the issue earlier in the summer, repeatedly urging schools to reopen in the fall. Recently, protesters gathered at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix calling for schools to reopen.
Complicating the matter further is that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has opted to let school districts decide how and when to reopen. The move lets school districts ignore benchmarks set by state public health officials for determining when they should resume in-person classes.
"It’s just the hyper-polarized electorate," said Mike Noble, a Phoenix-based political pollster. "When it comes to this issue, it’s absolutely become a political issue at the national level."
"This question is very similar and analogous to the whole mask debate," said David Garcia, an associate professor at Arizona State University's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate. "Unfortunately, in this environment, questions of health and safety become questions of political partisanship and they shouldn’t be."
Ken Brague, board president of the Queen Creek Unified School District, did not respond to a request for comment. When asked for details on how Queen Creek schools would handle a COVID-19 outbreak and under what circumstances they would shut down again, district spokesperson Stephanie Ingersoll wrote in an email only that "Maricopa County Public Health will advise."
Queen Creek is a rural community of around 42,000 people in the east Valley that leans conservative.
Gustavo Perez, a father of two children at Queen Creek schools who opposes reopening immediately, said that the battle lines in the debate and the board vote feel like a clash of conservative and liberal views of school reopening and COVID-19 in general.
"It all feels like it was much more a referendum on conservative views versus liberal views on the reopening of schools," he said. "It feels like it’s kind of become a conservative badge of honor to say 'let’s reopen schools'."
Tanisha Bowen, who has two kids in Queen Creek schools, said that the people who oppose resuming in-person instruction are "absolutely more liberal" or moderate. She added that Ducey's order for bars to be shut down illustrates the absurdity of resuming in-person classes before COVID-19 us under control.
"If I can't go sit down at a restaurant that’s too full, why would I put my child in potential harm's way to sit in school all day with hundreds if not thousands of other school children," Bowen said. "I want my child physically in a classroom. My issue is we don’t have a handle on this virus that’s going around."
Polling shows just how politicized the issue has become. While just 39 percent of Arizona voters are comfortable sending kids back to schools, a significant disparity emerges when breaking down voters by party, according to a recent survey conducted on August 3 and 4 by OH Predictive Insights, Noble's polling firm. Almost 70 percent of Democrats said they were "very uncomfortable" with sending their child back to school, compared to 19 percent of Republicans.
Some critics have noted that the majority of the Queen Creek school board is up for reelection this year, arguing that political pressure played a roll in the decision.
"It’s public pressure," said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. "There are members of the public that see this virus as not as a big a threat as other people do. There are people who think God is going to protect them from this virus. I see that in social media posts."
"Science tells us, more and more clearly, the longer you interact with people in a poorly ventilated space with larger numbers, the more likely you’re to contract this virus if you’re exposed to it, and that describes a classroom perfectly," he added. "The plan can’t just be to reopen."
Politics aside, the decision to reopen schools has been a bitter one. Several teachers have already resigned from Queen Creek schools since the board vote, according to Jacob Frantz, president of the Queen Creek Education Association.
"The flood gates are starting to open," he said. "We see what happens with districts that do this. It’s dangerous and it won’t work, so we’re very disappointed."
Some parents wonder whether they should pull their children from Queen Creek schools altogether. While the district will reportedly be offering outsourced online learning for families who don't want to send their kids to school, the system provides canned modules and offers little direct engagement with teachers, according to Frantz, president of the Queen Creek Education Association.
"Parents are scrambling," Bowen said. They’re trying to find other options."
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Messaging from Arizona state officials on the issue of reopening schools has been mixed. At an August 13 press conference, Govenor Ducey defended his decision to give school districts discretion about how to reopen.
"We’re going to leave the ultimate final decision to superintendents and principles and we’re confident they’ll make good decisions," he said. "We’re not ignoring the benchmarks. Many of the districts are close on the benchmarks and they’re making decisions."
The day before, Arizona State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, issued a statement on Twitter urging schools to follow public health guidelines.
"ALL schools should follow the Arizona Department of Health Services public health benchmarks to protect their communities from the consequences of COVID19," she said. "Not following them is a disservice to the educators who continue providing instruction via distance learning and the families who are supporting distance learning."