Tempe Union High School District today joined Kyrene School district in closing schools for the undetermined future.
Kyrene Schools Superintendent Jan Vesely announced Thursday that schools will be closed at least for another week and that the Governing Board will meet Tuesday night to consider whether the closure should last longer. Horizon Honors late Friday announced it is closing its elementary and secondary schools until at least March 20.
"After careful consideration, in consultation with the Kyrene Governing Board, I have made the decision to close all Kyrene schools in order to help contain the spread of COVID-19 in our community," Vesely said in an announcement, adding that given the highly contagious nature of COVID-19, if a student or some other member of the district's community were diagnosed, "it could be too late to stop the spread."
Kyrene became at least the third district in the Valley - and the first in the East Valley - to extend spring break because of the coronavirus and made the decision to clsoe in spite of an intensive effort this week to do a deep cleaning of all its 25 campuses. It also followed a conference call between state officials, including Gov. Doug Ducey and state education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, and some 400 school administrators across the state to discuss school closures, which have been ordered in several cities and states across the country.
Both Ducey and Hoffman, as well as state Health Director Cara Christ, said after that call there was no immediate need to close schools in Arizona.
Vesely said that for the last month, district officials have been in frequent conversations with state health and education officials about methods for controlling the "community spread" of the disease.
"However. I believe the time has now come for an important shift," she said.
"The Governing Board and I, along with the rest of Kyrene School District, share a responsibility to provide a safe environment for students and staff, in order to ensure high-quality learning. Kyrene schools will reopen when we are confident we can ensure that safe learning environment," Vesely also said, adding that a separate message will be sent to employees regarding "staffing, telecommuting and continued operations while schools are closed to students."
Closure means addressing concerns not only about education but food security for students and Vesely said the district "has already prepared for this possibility and has contingency plans in place to meet student needs. Kyrene will continue to provide meals for students who rely on us for lunch or breakfast." More details related to meals will be posted on the district's emergency webpage, www.kyrene.org/911 .
As for state requirements on the number of instructional hours for students, Vesely said, "Our district has sufficient instructional minutes to sustain a prolonged closure while still meeting State educational requirements. However, it is our intention to provide remote learning if the closure lasts for an extended period of time (longer than a week or two). The Kyrene Curriculum team is pro-actively working on a plan for the remote learning process that will serve our entire student population."
She said district personnel would meet today, March 13, to discuss "everything from meal service to extracurricular activities."
Vesely's announcement was the most dramatic of demonstration of the virus' impact on Ahwatukee and came on the same day the Festival of Lights Committee announced it was indefinitely delaying its scheduled April 17 fundraiser, the annoual Wine, Beer and Culinary Festival. A spokesman said the committee was exploring a enw date sometime in May or June.
Her announcement also comes only days before online registration begins at 6:30 a.m. March 17 for Kyrene’s summer, before- and after-school programs and preschool.
But it remained to be seen if registration for those programs would be impacted by concerns about the spread of coronavirus.
“Last March, we had Kyrene preschools fill within the first hour of registration, and come fall, Kyrene saw extensive wait lists for before/after-school programming,” Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm said two weeks ago, prior to the emergence of several suspected cases of the virus in Scottsdale and five confirmed cases in Pinal County.
“Early registration is key to securing a spot and also helps the district staff programs accordingly to help avoid wait lists,” she said.
Even as they prepared last week for the March 9-13 spring break last week, both Kyrene and Tempe Union High School officials were ratcheting up efforts to prepare for a wider spread of the virus – and considering online lessons in case schools are closed.
Like virtually all their counterparts in Maricopa County, Kyrene and Tempe Union are relying on the Maricopa County Department of Public Health for primary guidance.
Officials at the Arizona Department of Health and Human Services said they could not comment on whether school closures are imminent – it will depend how COVID-19 evolves over the next few days and weeks, they said.
And for now, neither they nor county health officials are currently recommending school closures.
In a letter sent out on Feb. 28, the county predicted the probability of any school closures being “very low” and “highly unlikely.”
Furthermore, a child catching COVID-19 may not result in the closure of their school.
State officials said if the child didn’t contract the virus at school, then the district may not be given the details of the child’s illness.
The Arizona Department of Education gave school leaders a list of suggested actions, including reviewing sick policies, routinely disinfecting facilities and making sure hand sanitizer, soap and tissues are widely available at schools.
The ADE also suggested districts take steps to prepare for potential spread of the illness by making sure they have communication plans in place for parents.
It also advised districts to make sure parents have a designated a caregiver for sick children and there are plans for students experiencing food insecurity.
Early last week, Gov. Doug Ducey and Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the state is now operating under the Arizona Pandemic Influenza Response Plan, said health department spokesman Chris Minnick. The plan was last updated in May 2019.
Under the plan, the state health department is responsible for overall coordination of public health and medical emergency response and disseminating information during a pandemic and is tasked with duties, including storing and delivering vaccine as it becomes available and helping perform mass vaccinations in impacted counties.
Tempe Union has dedicated a web page to serve as an information clearinghouse. That can be found at tempeunion.org/health-safety.
The district so far has sent four advisories to parents, the earliest being Jan. 27.
The district stressed that despite rumors, there were no students in any of Tempe Union’s seven high schools diagnosed with COVID-19.
But in its most recent advisory on March 3, Superintendent Kevin Mendivil also took note of a concern on the minds of officials in most districts:
“We know that many families have travel plans over spring break,” he wrote parents. “We urge you to take the utmost caution when traveling and suggest consulting the (Centers for Disease Control’s) website for the most up-to-date information on countries where travel has been restricted.”
The district also began “enhanced cleaning above and beyond our normal procedures,” Mendivil said. “The goal is to do this work over spring break to minimize classroom disruption. We take these precautions to ensure a healthy learning environment for every student.”
The district also put hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes and facial tissue in all classrooms and posted hygiene reminders there so that “students are aware of the precautions they can and should be taking on a daily basis.”
Tempe Union spokeswoman Megan Sterling also said the district staff has been in ongoing discussions “in relation to an online learning plan that could be implemented in the event of school closures.”
Helm said Kyrene has also undertaken discussions “in relation to an online learning plan that could be implemented in the event of school closures.”
“Out of an abundance of caution and in an effort to be proactive, Kyrene School District is preparing for all possible scenarios involving community spread of COVID-19,” she said.
She noted that the district has a “a tele-schooling system that could be used during a prolonged school closure.”
“The district’s curriculum team is pro-actively exploring options for providing lessons and assignments via that system,” Helm said.
“If an outbreak appeared imminent, district leadership would examine instructional minutes and make a balanced decision about school closures in the best interest of the community,” she added, noting that Superintendent Jan Vesely “would provide all families and staff with immediate notice.”
Both districts also were advising parents to keep children home if they were sick.
“We take the health of our student population very seriously and always ask that students do not come to school if they are unwell, regardless of the underlying reason,” Helm said.
“If a student has a fever, parents are called and students are sent home,” she said, adding that the district would work with the county if a student is suspected of being exposed to coronavirus “and follow their guidelines around quarantine.”
Helm also noted that Kyrene “has thresholds in place for assessing student illness, such as fever level and symptom evaluation” and that any student or staffer who is ill is advised to stay home.
“Students who are not ill, but who may have a compromised immune system or live in a home with someone in a higher-risk group, such as individuals with underlying medical conditions, may consider staying home,” she added. “Kyrene has informed parents that these absences will be excused.”
Like Tempe Union, the district also is conducting “a deep cleaning of all schools over spring break,” Helm said.
The district also is maintaining a website, Kyrene.org/911 to provide any additional updates.