Citing improved health metrics and a pattern of rural school openings, the Willcox School Board approved by a unanimous 5-0 vote Thursday to open in-person schooling throughout the district on Monday, August 17.

“We were below two of the benchmarks last week and this week the third one is (approaching) below the standard,” District Superintendent Kevin Davis told the board. “The trend is that it is dropping and if the trend continues we would be below the third benchmark next week.”

School board member Gary Clement asked if other schools were also choosing to open Monday, despite state recommendations to fully wait on passing the health metrics in Cochise County.

“Benson voted to wait for a little while,” Davis said. “I know that opening on Monday are Bonita, St. David, Cochise, Palominas and Pomerene. A good part of the rural schools have decided to open up. Sierra Vista, Naco, Bisbee and Douglas are waiting a while. Most of the ones like us that are further north in the county are opening.”

Middle school Principal David Chaim told the board he has teachers who are hesitant about opening.

“Some of my teachers have expressed concerns, mostly because of their health,” Chaim said. “However, one of the things that I have told them is that we will have less students in the classroom and there will be more opportunity to have distance and space. That has provided a certain sense of relief. But still they stop in their mind regarding health,” he added.

Willcox Schools will open on a staggered schedule, with half of the student population attending in person on Monday and Wednesday, the other half on Tuesday and Thursday. When students are not attending in-person, they will be receiving online instruction.

Elementary school Principal Valerie Simon said the difficulty for her teachers comes from “juggling two types of learning with the students that are in their classroom physically and at the same time having to manage the online learning students from their classroom.”

“Part of the problem is we are not sure, even to this moment, how many of each we would have. We won't know until they show up in the classroom. I think that's where the unease of my teachers comes in,” she added.

School board member Dwayne Owen prefers they don't wait any longer.

“Don't you think it would be better to start early and make your mistakes early than starting late and making mistakes later?” he asked.

Davis said the teaching problems won't get easier by pushing back the start date.

“It's been a crazy week trying to get phone books out, accounts established and learning new online programs and they feel uneasy about that,” he said. “I would too, but I don't know if that's the reason the board should choose to not have students come back, because they're still going to have those issues next week if we wait.”

The board also approved an updated face covering policy with changes that include students not required to wear masks when they can socially distance or are outside in playground settings with distancing. Students are allowed breaks to remove their face coverings in a safe environment. Face shields are allowed as an alternative to other face coverings.