Maybely Muñoz is not typically outspoken. She described herself as an introvert. But on Tuesday morning, the public elementary school teacher was at the Arizona Capitol and had strong words for Gov. Doug Ducey, who she thinks is putting children, teachers, school staff, and their families in danger by tying school funding to in-person student attendance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ducey has said schools will be able to convene in-person classes on Aug. 17, a date he announced in late June as “aspirational.” While Muñoz recognized that an online learning environment isn’t the best way to educate, her priority is the life of her students as the deadly COVID-19 pandemic grips Arizona.
“What is more important? For kids to play in a playground, to sit in a desk, to be face-to-face with a teacher and friends, or for your daughter to celebrate her quinceañera, for her to be alive? Or for your son to reach 18, or that he is able to drive? Because that means to be alive,” Muñoz said through a megaphone.
“This pandemic is killing people. Survivors are left with pain and medical conditions, again I ask you: What is more important? For kids to have higher academic scores, but suffer for their rest of their life or die, because they went into a (school) building?”
She stood at the entrance of the Capitol lawn with the Senate, House of Representatives and Capitol Museum buildings behind her. As Muñoz spoke under the hot July sun, cars and trucks drove in circles honking in support. People in the cars held signs or wrote messages on the outside like, “Protect educators and students,” “Safety for our students” and “Keep schools closed.”
Muñoz has been a teacher for more than 20 years. She currently teaches 4th grade at a public school district covering Phoenix’s southwest neighborhoods, which are heavily Latino. On Tuesday, while still holding the megaphone close to her face, Muñoz turned away from the street to face the Executive Tower, where the governor’s office is located on the top floor.
“Governor Ducey, you don’t care about our children,” she said. “You don’t care if the children die and the families die, but we do. We are right here asking you: Protect our children.”
Muñoz was at the Capitol as part of a group that delivered a letter to Ducey’s office that morning. In it, they call on Ducey and the state legislature to convene a special session to fund a two-phase reopening plan for schools. The letter, which organizers said had gathered more than 1,600 signatures from teachers and parents statewide, calls for funding online learning at all schools to give districts time to retrofit their campuses to be safe gathering venues.
While Ducey pledged $270 million to help schools reopen amid COVID-19, Muñoz said that is “a pittance” for a system that serves 1.1 million students in over 700 districts and charter schools.
“I don’t know what these people are thinking, but all I can say is that this is a mass murder if they expect children from our communities go back to school buildings,” she said.
Almost half of the families in Muñoz’s school district live below the poverty line, and the median household income is just below $32,000.
Two of her former students, both 19 years old, died from COVID-19 last month, she said.
“This… hurts me, it hurts me a lot, both as a teacher and as a mother,” Muñoz said. “For me, students are like a child of mine, and I wouldn’t like to see any of them die such an ugly death. I wouldn’t like to bring (the virus) here to my home, to my kids.
“We are fighting to give safe schools to all students, especially minority children because they are the most impacted.”
Lucero Beebe-Giudice, a parent and middle school teacher in Phoenix, also spoke at the small Capitol gathering.
She said that when she sends her kids to school and when she opens the doors of her classroom, she is signaling to them that they are in a safe place.
“Governor Ducey would make me a liar,” Beebe-Giudice said.
With the current widespread levels of the pandemic in Arizona, Beebe-Giudice said a “fully funded virtual education” should be the only option for schools.
The letter signed by parents and teachers talks about public school funding in the context of systemic racism—an issue that has been front-and-center in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Black, Latino and Native American communities have higher rates of hospitalization or death from COVID-19, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, public and private institutions are also reckoning with structural racism as thousands have marched to denounce the deaths of Black Americans after encounters with law enforcement.
The majority of students in Arizona’s public schools are non-white. Latinos account for 45% of the 1.1 million students, while 5% of students identified as Black, 3% as Asian, 4% as Native American, and 4% as being multi-racial, according to Arizona Department of Education figures.
“If we open schools before they are ready, it would hit Black, Indigenous, Latino and mestizo kids the hardest,” Beebe-Giudice said.
For years, education advocates and Latino community leaders have said that, when public schools are underfunded, it’s communities of color who are systematically left without the resources children need to get educated.
Arizona has consistently ranked at the bottom nationally in per pupil spending. A recent report from ALL in Education, an education advocacy group, noted that “as the Latino population (in Arizona) has grown, public investment in education has decreased.”
“If a state’s budget reflects its values and priorities, Arizona has not prioritized the education of its children,” the report notes. “When the 2001 numbers are viewed as a baseline, the percent change of ‘State only Funding per Student’ and the percent change of ‘Expenditure on Education Relative to Personal Income’ have fallen even though the Latino population has increased.”
Beebe-Giudice said Ducey has a choice to make. He can provide consistent funding so schools can plan a safe return that guarantees a learning environment that “protects life, mitigates suffering, and continues education.” Or he can let school districts scrap for resources during a time that has upended normalcy for most every sector of society.
“Our school districts are doing everything they can with the resources that they have, but their hands are tied by the state government,” she said. “Ducey is a businessman. He knows what he needs to do to strengthen an enterprise and what he needs to do to destabilize it.”
Beebe-Giudice said schools might need to install windows or ventilation systems, make investments in infrastructure or hire more teaching staff to reduce classroom sizes.
“We already have a teacher shortage, and now because of the pandemic we have a hightented need for more teachers in classrooms because, in order to follow the guidelines, we need small class sizes,” she said.
Every day, Regional Carrillo sees 155 students, he said. He teaches 6th, 7th and 8th graders at Academia del Pueblo, a K-8 charter school south of downtown Phoenix with bilingual and multicultural educational programs.
He also spoke against Arizona’s school reopening plans.
“The current political pressure from the governor, from the legislature, being placed on schools to reopen right now as COVID cases increases is a death knell for people of color already suffering from lack of access to healthcare employment, and technology,” Carrillo said.
Patrick Ptak, a Ducey spokesman, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the letter delivered to the governor Tuesday.
The letter has support from community organizations like Black Lives Matter Phoenix Metro, Arizona Dream Act Coalition, Mass Liberation Arizona, Trans Queer Pueblo, and Safe Schools 4 All Students AZ.