FILE - Arizona teacher strike

In this May 3, 2018, file photo, teachers crowd the lobby of the Arizona Senate as the Arizona legislature debates a budget negotiated by majority Republicans and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey at the Capitol in Phoenix.

(The Center Square) – Teachers from an Arizona school conducted a mass call-off, forcing district officials to cancel their scheduled first day of school Monday. 

The J.O. Combs Unified Community District’s leaders announced Friday evening that Monday’s classes had been canceled for lack of teachers. 

“Due to these insufficient staffing levels, schools will not be able to re-open on Monday as planned. This means that all classes, including virtual learning, will be canceled. At this time, we do not know the duration of these staff absences, and cannot yet confirm when in-person instruction may resume,” Superintendent Greg Wyman said in a news release. “Please know that we are acutely aware of how polarizing this issue is, and how challenging these ongoing developments are for our entire community.”

The call-off is an apparent protest of the district school board voting to resume in-person learning earlier than many other Arizona schools. Neighboring Queen Creek District did the same. The Arizona Republic reports some teachers had resigned rather than teach in the upcoming school year. Kathy Hoffman, Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, said earlier in August that the state’s COVID-19 metrics have yet to reach a point where it’s safe to resume in-person learning. New studies suggest the coronavirus doesn’t easily spread between younger children. 

In a Sunday video conference call that leaked on Twitter, state union leaders spoke to district teachers, inferring they had organized the effort that forced the school to cancel classes. 

“With any of these, um, we don’t want to call it a sick-out or anything like that because, you know, you can’t strike here in Arizona, so you don’t want it to, you know, have it be, like, an action event, but it kinda is, in a backhanded way,” said Leah Koistinen, special assignment organizational consultant with the Arizona Educational Association.

AEA officials did not respond to emails requesting comment Monday.

Arizona is a “right to work” state, meaning public-sector workers aren’t required to pay union dues to be a licensed teacher or any other career. A 1971 Arizona Attorney General opinion forbids teacher strikes. That’s why 2018’s Red for Ed teacher walkouts were not officially called strikes. 

Koistinen advised teachers on the call to take another sick day Tuesday and that they would give Wyman advance notice of their actions. The district announced Monday afternoon that Tuesday and Wednesday classes would also be canceled due to lack of teachers. 

"While we continue to work diligently on this matter, we also continue to receive a high volume of staff absences, and in turn will have to cancel all classes on Tuesday as well as Wednesday," the district said in an email. "A Governing Board meeting will be scheduled for Wednesday evening at 6:00pm to discuss next steps and options for a return to school. We are fully aware that a timely resolution to this matter is critical, and are committed to providing updates to our families as soon as they are available."

Staff Reporter

Cole Lauterbach reports on Illinois and Arizona government and statewide issues for The Center Square. He has produced radio shows for stations in Central Illinois and created award-winning programs for Comcast SportsNet Chicago.