Monday, November 23, 2020

School Districts Take Different Paths on Handling COVID-19 Risks

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 3:15 PM

As coronavirus cases increase state and countywide, school districts offering differing levels of in-person instruction are reporting positive cases among students and staff causing large numbers of potential contacts to quarantine.

Some districts have chosen to revert to remote online learning after Thanksgiving break, while others have closed down classrooms and school sites as outbreaks occur.


The Pima County Health Department guides districts in their reopening process, suggesting hybrid or remote-only learning based on three key metrics: two weeks with new case rates below 100 per 100,000, two weeks of percent positivity below 7 percent and hospital visits for COVID-19 illness below 10 percent.


At first, only one of these benchmarks had to move into the “substantial spread” category for the health department to recommend schools move to remote learning, but the Arizona Department of Health Services changed this guidance in late October to say all three had to be in the substantial category to recommend schools go remote.

click to enlarge Arizona Department of Health Services' "Safely Returning to In-Person - Instruction" guidelines. - ARIZONA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES
Arizona Department of Health Services
Arizona Department of Health Services' "Safely Returning to In-PersonInstruction" guidelines.


On Nov. 19, Pima County’s COVID-19 metrics report, which has a 12-day lag time in reporting data, showed substantial spread for COVID-19 cases over two consecutive weeks.

“Right now, our current stance is still that hybrid can work. That's been our position for a while now and remains our position,” Health Department Communications Manager Aaron Pacheco said. “However, this is changing really quickly, and if for some reason we need to change that stance, we're willing to do whatever we need to do to stop the spread, and keep it from continuing to increase.”


click to enlarge The Pima County Health Department's COVID-19 Progress Report and Local Recommendations as of Nov. 19. - PIMA COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT
Pima County Health Department
The Pima County Health Department's COVID-19 Progress Report and Local Recommendations as of Nov. 19.

In a letter to Pima County families on Nov. 20, the county health department said, “The majority of students, teachers, and staff currently in isolation or quarantine associated with schools in Pima County did not have an exposure to COVID-19 at their school. Rather, most exposures were during activities outside of the school setting.”


According to the health department, cases are coming from contact sports, at-home transmission and social gatherings outside of school settings.


There have been at least 16 outbreaks associated with schools throughout Pima County. Seven of these outbreaks are “athletics related, involving up to 22 cases per outbreak,” while “others have involved group lunches without enough physical distancing,” according to to letter.


The superintendent of Tucson’s largest school district held off on implementing hybrid learning when he learned the county was in substantial spread for only one of these metrics.


When the county health department alerted Tucson Unified School District’s Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo Pima County was in substantial spread for a two-week decline in cases, although the COVID-19 progress did not yet reveal this due to its reporting lag time, he decided to keep the district in remote only learning until January.


“Out of an abundance of caution, our leadership team has made a commitment to only initiate ‘hybrid’ instruction when Pima County is in a state of moderate transmission or better,” Trujillo said in a letter to the district’s families.


Sunnyside Unified School District will move from hybrid to remote learning after its Thanksgiving break due to community spread among staff, according to Marisela Felix, the director of public information for Sunnyside.


“We've had zero cases reported at our schools where the spread is happening from a staff member to a staff member or student to the student. We're finding that transmission is happening from activities outside of the schools, but we just want to be proactive in our efforts,” Felix said. “We know the holidays are coming up and we feel like that's the best thing for the safety of our community and our staff right now.”


As of Nov. 23, Sunnyside has reported 31 student COVID-19 cases and 18 staff cases.


Flowing Wells Unified School District remains in hybrid learning, but Flowing Wells High School has moved to remote learning until after Thanksgiving break due to the amount of staff in quarantine, which Superintendent David Baker says puts the district’s COVID-19 mitigation plan at risk.


“In the case of our high school, we have a number of staff now in quarantine that we're unable to actually complete our mitigation planning around supervision, security, cleaning of the school, therefore, we moved to remote for a 14-day quarantine period,” Baker said.


The district has reported 13 positive COVID-19 cases among hybrid students and three positive cases among staff participating in the hybrid learning model, causing 38 students and 21 staff to quarantine as of Nov. 23.


Amphitheater Unified District has remained in a hybrid model since Oct. 12. They’ve reported 57 total student cases and 23 staff cases, with 485 individuals having to self-quarantine as of Nov. 23. 


Twenty student cases and five staff cases are currently active, with 199 individuals still in quarantine, according to the district’s Communications Director Michelle Valenzuela.


At Holaway Elementary, both fifth-grade classrooms moved to entirely online instruction after two staff members reported positive COVID-19 tests on Oct. 28 and 31.


The Marana Unified School District has reported 82 total positive coronavirus cases among students and staff, with 19 of the cases still active as of Nov. 23. 


According to the district’s Director of Public Relations and Community Engagement Alli Benjamin, there have been cases of in-school transmission at Mountain View High School, Marana High School and Play and Learn (PAL) Preschool.


The Catalina Foothills School District reopened for in-person learning on Oct. 26, and has reported 19 positive coronavirus cases.


According to Julie Farbarik, the district’s director of alumni and community relations, there have been no cases of classroom or workplace transmission in the district, and most of the cases are associated with sports activities.


Farbarik said no Catalina Foothills employees have had to quarantine due to exposure at school, but didn’t specify if any students have had to quarantine.


“Looking ahead, we want to avoid intermittent opening and closing of our schools, if possible. We really want to keep our schools open for in-person learning,” Farbarik wrote in an email to the district’s families. “We must continue taking steps to protect the health of our community. Eventually, we hope for a pathway to the gradual resumption of more in-person student activities as health conditions allow.”


TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo says although the district notifies potential close contacts of those with COVID-19, the district isn’t publicly releasing COVID-19 case counts due to “online covid shaming and bullying.”


Pacheco from the county health department says as the COVID-19 surge continues, more metrics on the Pima County dashboard are expected to fall into the substantial spread category. Ultimately, the Pima County Health Department will depend on the state department’s school reopening guidelines to make the decision on schools going remote or remaining in hybrid learning models. 


“We definitely don't want to give the school districts and school leadership mixed messages when it comes to what we're saying and what the state is saying. Ultimately, the dashboard that the state has created for schools is what everybody's looking at and pointing to, so we've tried to make sure that we're staying in step with what the state is saying,” he said. “If this trajectory continues, it's looking like we will continue to see progress that was made continue to move backwards.”

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