Noting that more than 800 students are in quarantine, Kyrene Superintendent Dr. Jan Vesely on Friday announced all students will be back to learning at home Nov. 30. Tempe Union High School District followed suit.
Although students will be in classrooms for the short holiday week, Vesely said the latest data from the county health department reflects a surging COVID-19 not only in the district but across the state.
“When we see substantial community spread, it poses a risk to our entire school community, not just children, and for those who are older or at high risk, the outcome could be life threatening,” Vesely told parents in an email. “My first and foremost priority is to keep everyone safe.”
Kyrene follows Tempe Elementary in closing classrooms in the wake of increases in all three benchmarks used by school districts in deciding whether to keep campuses open.
Since both those districts are feeder districts and have similar virus level readings, it was no surprise that Tempe Union officials pulled the trigger and returned to at-home learning which students likely will continue for the rest of 2020.
Tempe Union Assistant Superintendent Sean McDonald briefed his Governing Board on Wednesday, the day before updated metrics were released by the county and noted that there has been a steady increase in cases the last two weeks and said it is unlikely the metrics would decline any time soon.
“We know what’s coming our way,” he said.
Tempe Union also reiterated that – unlike Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified – all schools would close if a decision is made to return to full virtual learning.
The Governing Board voted 3-2 to authorize Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil authority to make the decision on closing campuses. Andres Barraza and Sandy Lowe abstained, saying they didn't think the board could vote because the resolution was not open the agenda. Mendivil disagreed, as did the three other board members who backed him.
Chandler and Gilbert are looking at schools on a case-by-case basis and would only closing those campuses where pre-established thresholds of confirmed cases were reached.
The latest data from the county showed that for the week of Nov. 8, cases per 100,000 jumped from 100 to 179 in Kyrene’s boundaries and from 112 to 213 within Tempe Union’s boundaries. That indicates substantial virus spread.
The data are 12 days old when the county posts them on Thursday mornings.
Percent of new positive test results jumped from 4.7 to 6 percent in Kyrene and from 5.3 to 7 percent in Tempe Union.
Although that level is considered an indication of moderate spread, Mendivil noted the state was “cavalier” in changing that guideline since earlier this year a 7 percent positivity had been considered a sign of substantial spread.
In both Tempe Union and Kyrene, the third benchmark – percent of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms – rose for the first time in a couple months from the minimal-spread category and entered the moderate-spread level.
Vesely made indirect mention of that increase when she said, “A growing number of staff are experiencing COVID-like symptoms due to flu, colds or other viruses. Staff are required to remain home with ANY symptoms, and we are having extreme difficulty securing substitute teachers for those classrooms.
“Soon, we will not have enough personnel to cover classes. Moving to contingency reduces the risk of teachers being out sick.”
Vesely also said while many families “have been diligent about practicing good safety habits both on and off campus,” Kyrene has seen “multiple cases of students sent to school with symptoms or while awaiting COVID test results.
“These incidents put staff and students at risk in addition to causing preventable school quarantines,” she said.
“Higher community spread translates into higher positive COVID cases on campuses, higher counts of quarantine and greater risk for everyone.”
Kyrene began reopening classrooms for the lowest grades in mid-September while Tempe Union students are divided alphabetically, with the chance to attend in-class instruction either Monday-Tuesday or Thursday-Friday while all students are learning at home on Wednesdays.
Ahwatukee showed the same increases in the three metrics that both school districts show.
The biggest change is in 85045, where cases per 100,000 soared from 61 the week of Nov. 1 to 208 the following week. The latest data showed 187 cases per 100,000 in 85044(up from 101) and 136 in 85048 (up from 11).
Positive test result percentages were close to 7 percent in 85045 and 85044, and just above 6 percent in 85048 while the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-climbed into the moderate spread level in all three ZIP codes.
Phoenix Mayor Gallego today called on the governor to impose a statewide mask mandate to curb the virus – a proposal Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday already shot down, saying it was not necessary because many municipalities and counties already have one in place.
During his Wednesday press conference, Ducey also reiterated the need to keep classrooms open.