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Cartwright Schools Welcome Students Back For First Time Since Pandemic Began

Tuesday was the first day of in-person classes for the Cartwright School District in west Phoenix. It's a moment that students, staff and administrators have been looking forward to since their schools closed down last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’ve been waking up early. I felt like I’ve had more of a purpose in life again," said Casey Newman, principal at Manuel “Lito” Peña Jr. Elementary School. "I am happy as can be and I see that in my teachers’ faces too.”

But this moment almost didn't happen. Prior to an  March 3 executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey mandating schools start offering in-person classes, the district had planned to keep all students on distance learning through the end of the school year. During a  March 4 board meeting, Superintendent LeeAnn Aguilar-Lawlor said the previous decision was made out of safety concerns for their community, but the district was excited and ready to take this step. 

At Peña Elementary, Tuesday was all about teaching students the new rules they’ll be following while the pandemic continues. 

“We’ve been taking them through trial runs on how to get across campus safely, which directions to walk in and they're just excited to be here," Newman said. 

So far, Newman said the school hasn't had any problems with students, and he credits that to parents and guardians who have been stressing the importance of mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing from home. 

Under Ducey's executive order, coming back to school was optional for families, and Newman said 46% of Peña's 760 students are going to continue learning from home for the rest of the schools. This makes it easier to keep class sizes small, but it’ll also mean that teachers like  will have to juggle remote students alongside those in-person with them.

Currently, Wisneski has 20 second graders in her classroom and 12 others online. 

“I know each day is going to be different and it’s probably going to bring up new situations that I’ll have to figure out, but honestly they are resilient," she said of her students. "They're just so excited to be here and my online kids jump right back into our routine." 

The rest of the first week back in school will be focused on getting students and staff reacquainted and most importantly having fun after a stressful year, Newman said. 

Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.