State and local school officials last week expressed concern over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona, pleading with the entire community – not just students and school personnel – to do their part to keep the virus in check and kids in classrooms.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman held a news conference with several superintendents and state health director Dr. Cara Christ about the pandemic’s continuing impact on schools.
Hoffman said that a new spike in COVID-19 will force local schools into the “impossible decision’’ of whether to shut their doors to in-person learning to prevent students and teachers from getting sick.
“Without serious changes from us, the adults making daily choices that determine the virus’ path, we cannot expect these numbers to head in a safe direction,’’ Hoffman said.
Within Tempe Union’s boundaries, cases per 100,000 people rose from 87 the week of Oct. 17 to 112 the week of Oct. 24, putting that benchmark in the moderate spread category.
The data are 12 days old when the county posts them.
The percentage of positive new test results rose from 4.2 to 5.3 percent but that remained at a level for minimum virus spread, as did COVID-like symptoms in hospital visits, which rose from 3 to 4 percent.
Kyrene showed similar levels for all three benchmarks.
Within Kyrene’s boundaries, cases per 100,000 rising from 77 to 100. The other two benchmarks remained within the minimal spread category.
Some districts farther east in Maricopa County, particularly in Gilbert, reported significantly higher readings in the positivity and cases per 100,000 categories.
Chandler Unified also showed cases per 100,000 rising from 68 to 111 and positive new test results going up from 5 to 5.3 percent.
Citywide, Chandler saw cases per 100,000 jumped from 68 to 102 and positive new test results up from 4.6 to 5.2 percent.
Ahwatukee’s three ZIP codes presented a mixed bag of data with cases per 100,000 more than halved in 85045, from 147 to 61, and the other two benchmarks within the minimal spread category
Cases per 100,000 increased in 85044 from 91 to 101 and from 75 to 111 in 85248 – both in the substantial spread level. While hospital visits remained in the minimal spread level in both those ZIP codes, test positivity went into the moderate spread in 85048 rising from 3.3 to 6.2 percent.
Christ made multiple suggestions for dealing with the spread of the disease but said she’s not prepared to recommend new restrictions on individual and business activities.
“We continue to monitor the data on a daily basis,’’ she said.
And the health chief said some “mitigation strategies’’ are being discussed should counties, now considered at “moderate’’ risk of spread of the virus, move back into the “substantial’’ category they were at earlier this year.
“We would work with the local health departments to identify what strategies we could implement,’’ Christ said. But she stressed there would be no universal model.
“Each community is going to have different factors playing a role,’’ Christ said.
Christ detailed how the state is now approaching 260,000 confirmed cases of the virus.
More significant, she said, is that 9 percent of the tests administered the last week of October came back positive. And Christ said there has been an increase in the number of people showing up in hospitals with COVID-like symptoms.
Christ also expressed concern about rising suicide rates among young people in Arizona as they struggle with the pandemic’s disruptive impact on their academic and personal lives.
Hoffman said she is concerned about the impact of another major round of campus closures.
“When our schools close to in-person instruction, it is devastating to our communities,’’ she said.
“Parents are thrown in flux as they try to decide the best model for distance learning, whether at home or at an on-site learning center,’’ Hoffman continued. “Educators must adapt quickly, transitioning from in-person and hybrid to distance learning.
Christ said her and Hoffman’s department are setting up a pilot program for free weekly testing of teachers.
But John Carruth, superintendent of the Vail Unified School District, said what is happening in the classroom is not the problem.
“Both our experience and what I think our Pima County data are showing is that transmission is happening in the community and not within our schools, which is encouraging,’’ he said.
Christ does have some answers to that, specifically with recommendations for what families should be doing this Thanksgiving to prevent these traditional family gatherings from turning into spreader events.
It starts, she said, with moving celebrations outside or a local park.
If that can’t happen, Christ said “create spaces’’ indoors so people can distance from one another, open doors and windows for better ventilation, and reduce the number of people gathered around the table.
“And consider celebrating virtually with your college-age students or your higher-risk and elderly relatives,’’ she said.
Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Andi Fourlis said one of her district’s campuses, Mesa High, has been forced to go back to two days a week of in-classroom learning because of an outbreak.
Because of the concern about holiday gatherings, she also said the district will extend the long weekend by a day, with only virtual learning for all students on the Monday after Thanksgiving.
While the state determines the standards for how and when businesses can operate, that isn’t the case for schools. Instead, the state provides “guidance’’ for local districts, along with reports of COVID-19 case and trends, and then leaves it to school officials to work with local health departments to figure out how to respond.
Quintin Boyce, superintendent of the Roosevelt Elementary School District in Phoenix, many students in his district live in multi-generational households with not just parents and siblings but grandparents, too.
“That influences the decision that we make,’’ he said.
Meanwhile, Gov. Doug Ducey Governor Doug Ducey, announced last week that he and Hoffman will be making grants available from a pool of $19 million of the state’s federal pandemic relief funds to support schools and students most affected by the pandemic.
The grants will help fund teacher development and stipends, reading and math curriculum, summer education resources and other activities.
Eligibility for the program, known as the Acceleration Academies Grant Program, was determined through a partnership with Read On Arizona and the Maricopa Association of Governments. The organizations adopted a data-driven approach, considering factors such as AZMerit scores, percentage of students eligible for free and reduced-priced meals, access to computers and Internet, COVID-19 cases in the community, unemployment claims and other factors, the governor said.
More than 180 schools are eligible for the program, with additional dollars prioritized for schools most impacted.
“No matter what education option parents choose, we are determined to make sure no student falls behind this year,” said Ducey. “These dollars will boost those efforts, funding proven acceleration strategies to keep kids academically on-track.”
The Arizona Department of Education will administer the grant and develop reporting and progress measures for grant recipients.
Eligible schools will be able to choose programs that best fit their needs from a list of strategies proven to accelerate academic achievement.
Examples the governor cited included: training teachers in best practices for math and literacy instruction; teacher stipends for additional student tutoring sessions; contracting with qualified math or reading specialists to do one-on-one or small group work with students; and summer math or reading intensive programs for students in need.
Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.