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Tensions rise as WUSD manages return to school

The Williams Unified School District office building. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

The Williams Unified School District office building. (Wendy Howell/WGCN)

WILLIAMS, Ariz. — The stress of overseeing a school district open for in-person instruction was apparent at the Sept. 23 school board meeting as discussion between the Williams Unified School District Governing Board and the district’s superintendent got tense as they discussed the recent decision to temporarily close a kindergarten class amid COVID-19 fears.

WUSD superintendent Rick Honsinger, along with Williams Elementary-Middle School Principal

Carissa Morrison, made the decision to suspend kindergarten Sept. 22 after nearly half of the students were absent the day before.

“We made the call to not have them come to school until we figured out what was going on,” Honsinger said at the meeting. “That’s a decision I have to make.”

Board members Ann Wells and Herman Nixon were concerned about the abrupt decision and lack of communication with the governing board.

“I do feel as a board member, if we are going to cancel classes in the future because of absenteeism, first I would ask if there was COVID cases…and if there was strong suspicion I think the board should be appraised of that,” Wells said.

“My problem isn’t the decision you made,” Nixon said. “I think it is important to have better communication for something that is definitely going to be controversial.”

According to Honsinger, staff at the elementary school became concerned when 14 kindergartners were absent Sept. 21. Further investigation revealed that many were out with cold-like symptoms, and several had seen a physician and were referred for COVID-19 testing.

Morrison said historically kindergarten has the highest rates of absenteeism in the school, so staff was not initially concerned.

“There are days when a lot of kindergartners are out, but I think now it has really sunk in and I realize this is a different year,” Morrison said.

The late evening notification and lack of input from the kindergarten teachers was also a concern for Wells.

“I understand that people make decisions for the safety of our students and with the best of intent, but to notify parents late at night that they cannot send their kid to school the next day…it puts them in an extreme hardship,” Wells said.

Teachers and the attendance officer should be involved, and a decision should be made earlier in the day, Wells added.

Honsinger appeared frustrated as board members criticized his decision.

“I would like some support in these times instead of being judged even without being talked to,” he said. “There are schools across this state and schools across this country that are not in session. They don’t get to go to school. We are in session and for one day kindergarteners aren’t here — because I was cautious.”

Wells said she believed it was important to follow the district’s reopening plan.

“I looked over our school reopening plan that our staff spent many hours on. There’s nothing in there that says if we have a high absentee rate, which I believe is due to parents doing what we asked them to — which was to keep their students home if they had the sniffles or weren’t feeling well — there’s nothing in there that said if there is a high absentee rate that we would cancel the school under those circumstances,” Wells said.

The governing board met in a special meeting Sept. 28 to work through the reopening plan and address relations between the board and superintendent.

As of Sept. 28, WUSD has not reported any positive COVID cases.

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