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Students return to in-person instruction throughout Flagstaff Unified School District
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Students return to in-person instruction throughout Flagstaff Unified School District

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Teachers and staff welcomed back students of the Flagstaff Unified School District after months of remote learning.

In-person learning officially began Monday in FUSD schools and will operate five days a week for the remainder of the semester. Following spring break, a significant proportion of the district's student population was allowed to return as outlined in a phased return plan approved by the FUSD governing board last month.

This week's returnees included students in kindergarten, first, second, third, sixth, ninth and 12th grades, and students in specialized programs. The remaining students will return to the classroom next Monday.

On Monday morning elementary students across the Flagstaff Unified School District returned to school. At area high schools ninth and 12th grade students returned while at middle schools sixth grade students had their “first day of school.” At Mount Elden Middle School, Dalylah Shaffer was navigating unfamiliar hallways to her first in-person sixth grade class, map in hand.

"It was very exciting to finally see people that have been on your screen for the whole year," said Brenda Calderon, Puente de Hózhó Elementary fifth grade Spanish teacher. "That's the main thing I took away from the day: Excitement."

Those returning to campus are required to follow COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including wearing a face mask, maintaining physical distance and quarantining after exposure to the virus. The staff have also been trained to monitor their student's symptoms, district officials said.

Not all students will be returning, however, as families have the choice to continue engaging in remote learning based on family preference or student health needs. Teachers will deliver lessons to both in-person and online students simultaneously using a concurrent teaching model. According to an optional form distributed earlier this month, FUSD families indicated that 67% of students planned to resume in-person learning.

Rolling Out The Big Welcome

Mount Elden Middle School principal Tammy Nelson gives a big welcome to Rhett Skinner as he gets off the school bus Monday morning for his first day of sixth grade in person.

Fifth grade teacher Jillian Hernandez, who also teaches at Puente de Hózhó, commented on the importance of providing a similar learning opportunity to all students, regardless of their selected mode of learning.

"Each classroom has a different percentage of students who have come back or stayed online for various reasons. It's our job as educators to equitably teach," Hernandez said.

Prior to the students' arrival Monday, staff were the first to return to campus on March 8 and used the extra time to prepare for the influx of students later in the month.

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Preparations included placing directional arrows on the hallway floors to encourage social distancing and hanging signage to remind students to wear their mask. Teachers also collaborated with the district health and safety team and school administrators to maximize space between students -- including removing unnecessary supplies from the classroom.

"We've done a lot of work and our schools are ready," FUSD Chief Health Administrator McKenzie Bevert said in an interview. "Practicing all of these mitigation strategies that we as a district are promoting is really helpful."

FUSD implements mitigation strategies utilizing district research into effective practices, based on both recommendations from the CDC and strategies used by other schools that have reopened.

First Day Of In Person

Sixth-grade students wear masks as they take a tour of Mount Elden Middle School in this March photo.

Early on in the pandemic, vital sanitation resources such as hand sanitizer were difficult to come by and staff were just beginning to figure out how to manage student safety. Bevert said the schools are in a much better place than they were a year ago, thanks to collaborative efforts that included both the City of Flagstaff and Coconino County.

"We have individuals that can put insight into what that looks like. And we talk about 'How can we make this better? How can this work?' We walk through the buildings," Bevert said. "We really work with our collaboration with our partners within the county and within Flagstaff to talk about what's successful and what works."

Bevert noted the importance of students practicing safety habits both at home and in the classroom. She said ensuring that students have a comfortable mask that fits, reminding them to avoid physical contact and helping them practice regular hand washing are a few ways families can support the district's mitigation efforts.

The FUSD COVID-19 dashboard indicates there have been 275 total COVID-19 cases among staff and students since Aug. 17, including 48 that have been associated with athletics. If FUSD's Friday health updates indicate the worsening of COVID-19 cases over the course of two weeks, the board will then consider a return to full remote learning.

During the last reported week, eight cases were reported across the district: one at Mount Elden Middle School, one at Flagstaff High School, one at Thomas Elementary School, two at DeMiguel Elementary School and three at Puente de Hózhó Elementary.

"Individuals who test positive are excluded from participation in any in-person or on-campus activities until FUSD determines that the individual meets the return criteria set by state and local health agencies," according to the FUSD website.

Those criteria include notifying individuals identified as a "close contact" with the positive student, following isolation and self-quarantine guidelines and providing FUSD information related to symptoms and testing.

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