QUEEN CREEK, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - Queen Creek Unified School District is one of the first big school districts in the East Valley heading back to the classroom this week. Wednesday's first day of classes will be in-person, and masks will be optional.

In April, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order banning schools from making mask mandates. 

Gov. Ducey lifts mask mandates for Arizona schools, allows districts to decide

According to district officials, this year's outlook feels more hopeful even with COVID numbers on the rise and the threat of the Delta variant.

"This school year feels different because there's more excitement," officials said. "We're in a better place from what we learned from last year. Morale is through the roof. We are fully staffed to meet the needs of all our students to maintain small class sizes."

The district has other measures in place to keep everybody safe. "We are contributing to push staying home when sick, washing hands and practicing healthy hygiene habits, and keeping daily and nightly cleaning schedules."

Other Valley school districts struggled with retaining enrollment numbers during the pandemic. Some parents switched districts because they wanted their kids to have a full-time in-person option, entirely virtual, or part-time virtual.

In Queen Creek, however, enrollment is up by 18%. The district said it anticipated 1,200 additional students, but registered 1,900 kids. Queen Creek now has 12,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Last year was a stressful and uncertain start to the school year as districts were left to figure out the best fit for their staff and students.

Queen Creek started its 2020 school year with full-time virtual learning or in-person learning, but students were required to wear masks on campus. The move met with controversy as some teachers didn't feel it was right to rush back to campus because no school district in Arizona met the state health benchmarks. Of the 10,000 students enrolled, the district said 14% chose to learn from home only.

At the time, the Queen Creek Education Association reported at least 43 of its teachers resigned because they didn't feel safe coming back to work. 

Queen Creek teachers weigh in on the start of in-person learning

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