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COVID-19 spike brings tough choices for schools

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The state’s top education official said Monday 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,” Kathy Hoffman said.

But state Health Director Cara Christ, while making multiple suggestions for dealing with the spread of the disease, 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.

Cara Christ

Cara Christ

“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% of the tests administered last week came back positive. And Christ said there has been an increase in the number of people showing up in hospitals with COVID-like symptoms.

That, in turn, affects the question of whether students learn in class, online or a combination of both. Hoffman said these are not equivalent.

“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.

And then there are the effects on children, separated from friends and, as Christ said, at greater risk for depression and suicide.

What her agency is doing in conjunction with the Department of Education is 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. Carruth said that shows the key to keeping schools open is dealing with what occurs elsewhere.

Kathy Hoffman

Kathy Hoffman

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.

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, said it’s not a simple yes-or-no answer.

“We understand that school is the best place for students, but not at the expense of safety,” he said.

Complicating the situation, Boyce said, is that many of the 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.

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