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'If we can't do it, we can't do it': Arizona schools struggling to keep doors open

Gov. Ducey has warned districts not to shut down. Deer Valley Unified official says it's taking '500 percent' effort to keep school doors open.

PHOENIX — The superintendent of one of Arizona's largest school districts is warning parents to be “mentally ready” for their child to learn from home.

“Our teachers want to be open, our parents and students want to be an in-person school,” Dr. Gary Zehrbach, deputy superintendent of the Deer Valley Unified School District, said in an interview Wednesday.

One week since the district’s students came back from break, Deer Valley Unified has come close to pulling it off.

“But if we can't do it, we can't do it,” Zehrbach said. 

“I do not want to put our students into a situation where they're unsafe due to a lack of supervision.”

Deer Valley Unified is the fifth-largest district in the state, educating 35,000 children from pre-kindergarten through high school. 

So far this new year a dozen classes have reverted to virtual learning for up to five days, as COVID cases spike among students and staff - even school nurses.

Zehrbach presented data on staff absences and the district’s challenges to the School Board Tuesday night. 

“When we don't have a staff member that can be in a classroom for a student to make sure that students are safe and learning can continue, in a small number of situations we have needed to convert that room to virtual,” Zehrbach told 12 News.

Zehrbach says COVID cases are still short of their peak. Cases among school-age children keep climbing.  

“There could be a robotext that comes late at night or early in the morning, stating that a virtual environment is necessary,” he said.

Across the Valley, COVID cases are surging to levels last seen during the January 2021 peak. 

Last winter, many Valley school districts operated virtually.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said in his State of the State speech this week that schools won’t shut down again. 

“Arizona schools are open and they will remain open,” Ducey said, prompting a standing ovation from Republican lawmakers.

In Deer Valley and in many other districts, it's taking a team effort by all school employees to keep the doors open. 

"I would hope that the community knows just how dedicated a staff we have at our schools,” Zehrbach said.  

"They're putting forth 500 percent each and every day.”

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