Pima County superintendents faced the music Tuesday and announced the teacher strike had dashed their hopes of keeping schools open during the statewide walkout planned for Thursday and Friday.
School district administrators hoped to keep schools open, at least partially, during the walkout. But one by one on Tuesday, school districts announced they simply didn’t have enough teachers willing to work during the strike to safely watch students — let alone teach them.
Tucson’s nine major districts will close all their campuses Thursday, leaving roughly 116,000 students without a school to attend.
Amphitheater, Flowing Wells, Marana, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified have plans to provide free and reduced-cost breakfast and lunch for students. But beyond that, the walkout has crippled schools’ ability to care for students.
And while some districts — including Tucson Unified, Marana and Flowing Wells — are holding out hope that they will be able to reopen Friday, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo acknowledged it’s “very likely” schools will close Friday as well, though that will depend on whether teachers decide to come back.
With no clear end in sight, school administrators are taking the walkout day by day. Several school district said they have enough time built into their calendars to weather a two-day walkout without extending their school years. But they warned that if the walkout continues into next week, the scene will be very different.
“The scope and the magnitude of the district’s contingency plan radically changes if we’re looking at a long-term work stoppage. It changes from just trying to provide child care and access to the cafeteria for a very, very short-term period, to a long-range plan for how we deal with graduation, how we deal with the extension of the school year, how we deal with (grade promotions), how we deal with grade reporting,” Trujillo told reporters Tuesday.
When Arizona Educators United, the grass-roots group pushing for more education funding, announced last week that 78 percent of the 53,000 school employees who voted supported a walkout, TUSD hoped to be able to keep schools partially open for “non-instruction” days.
But as of Tuesday morning, nearly 2,200 of TUSD’s 3,200 teachers called in sick or used personal leave days for Thursday, and even keeping schools partially open became impossible, Trujillo said.
“We will no longer be able to have the level of supervision that we’re going to need to be able to provide a safe environment for kids on Thursday,” he said.
Employees will be allowed to work during the strike if they choose, but the district won’t have enough staff to safely watch its roughly 44,000 students, Trujillo said.
Nearly 1,300 TUSD teachers had already called out for Friday, though Trujillo expects that number to grow.
He noted that in the event TUSD is able to reopen schools Friday, it won’t have enough bus drivers to serve all routes, as many drivers have said they will not return Friday.
Last week, Vail School District Superintendent Calvin Baker was bullish on the district’s chances of being able to keep its schools open during the walkout, saying he believed Vail’s participation level in the strike would be lower than that of many surrounding districts, and that he would be able to keep schools open — and teaching — during the strike.
But on Tuesday, after employees submitted their requests for time off, he realized the walkout was more widespread than he anticipated.
“It was a statewide issue, and there was a big wave. And we got caught up in it,” Calvin Baker said Tuesday.
He said only about 35 percent of his staff was planning to be absent Thursday, but a significant number of them are special-education employees, which made it more difficult to remain open.
“The reality is we take care of some pretty significantly involved special-ed students. And in some of our schools, most or all of our special-ed staff submitted leave requests. We just didn’t have the resources to take care of those kids safely,” he said.
And he said the decision to close all schools was partially to ensure that the strike doesn’t drive dividing lines between employees who participate and those who don’t.
“We place a very high value on our culture here in Vail School District, and we didn’t want to pit our teachers against each other,” he said.
Unlike TUSD employees, Vail employees will not be allowed to work during the walkout, he said. And while teachers won’t see their pay decrease, the district’s hourly employees will suffer, though they’ll likely have the ability to make up those days if the district has to extend its school calendar.
Catalina Foothills Superintendent Mary Kamerzell told parents in an email last week that it was “unlikely that our dedicated professionals will abandon their students and the important teaching and learning that occurs in our schools each day.”
On Tuesday, she announced that, “Based on the number of teachers and staff who indicate that they will participate, it is clear that we cannot provide a viable instructional school day for our students during the walkout.”
The Sahuarita Unified School District asked its teachers whether they were planning to participate in the strike and found about 57 percent of teachers planned to leave.
Although Superintendent Manuel Valenzuela wanted to keep schools open, it became apparent that wasn’t possible.
“We grappled with the data, and considered different contingencies and ideas to try and remain open. ... However, the weight of the evidence and emerging themes, logistics and scenarios became clear over time.
“Our first strategic direction is to maintain safe environments. The preponderance of counsel and data I received suggests that there is reasonable doubt as to our ability to operate schools in a safe manner,” Valenzuela wrote in a notice to parents.
The Sunnyside Unified School District hoped to keep schools open for parents who needed to go to work and didn’t have any other child-care options. But on Tuesday, it announced that would be impossible.
“After careful review of staff absences on those days, we have determined it is in the best interest of student safety to cancel classes for both Thursday and Friday,” Superintendent Steve Holmes said in a notice to parents.
However, he said he didn’t expect the walkout to extend into Monday.
“In the event that this changes, we will notify families immediately,” Holmes wrote.
Flowing Wells Unified School District Superintendent David Baker told parents in an update that the district hoped to avoid any disruption to the school day. But because so many teachers and staff plan to join the strike Thursday, it would be impossible to keep schools open.
David Baker said the district polled its parents to see how many planned to keep their children home in a walkout, and found that 75 percent were prepared to do so.
“While the District appreciates and supports everyone’s effort to call attention to the current school funding problem, we had hoped to avoid any disruption to the school day,” David Baker wrote in the update.
“Unfortunately, we have determined we cannot appropriately supervise students due to the number of absences planned for Thursday.”
He added that the district does not know how long schools will be closed.
Amphitheater Public Schools Superintendent Todd Jaeger said last week that to minimize the impact on kids, the district would determine the need to close schools on a site-by-site, day-by-day basis, and that the district believed it would have enough other staff to keep most, if not all, schools open without instruction.
But on Tuesday, the district announced it is closing all of its 21 schools on Thursday and Friday, leaving more than 13,000 students without a school.