Off Course: Corona Spread Forces TUSD to Postpone In-Classroom Instruction

As a key metric tracking the spread of coronavirus in Pima County is likely to shift to substantial spread this week, the Tucson Unified School District will not open as planned this Thursday, Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo announced in a letter to the district's families Friday, Oct. 6.

"In my briefings this week with the Pima County Health Department leadership team, I was informed that our county will be in a state of widespread community transmission of COVID-19 at the time of our planned opening," Trujillo said in the letter. "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."

The district approved a Nov. 12 reopening date in a hybrid model at an Oct. 27 governing board meeting when Pima County Public Health Director Theresa Cullen said the county had, at the time, met the health department's three guidelines for opening in a hybrid model: 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.

Pima County reported 1,207 new cases the week of Oct. 25-31, which will likely put it in the "substantial spread" category for a two-week decline in cases when the county's progress report is updated this Thursday.

In a Facebook post, TUSD Governing Board Member Adelita Grijalva said in-person classes will resume in January 2021.

Last week, Cullen predicted the metric tracking a two-week decline in cases—a key benchmark the state based its school reopening guidelines on—would likely move to substantial spread.

"We're showing numbers of 900 to 1,000 [per week], which means on the dashboard, that first disease measure is more than 100 cases per hundred thousand, puts us into the red, which is accelerated transmission. My guess, even though that number's not 1,000 yet for week 44, I think I'm expecting it will hit that," she said.

Now that the health department's data reports show more than 1,000 cases reported for week 44, or Oct. 25-31, Cullen's prediction will likely come true.

The health department's Communications Manager Aaron Pacheco said it won't be officially announced if the metric is in the red until the department updates it progress report by 5 p.m. Thursday, but said in an email, "We expect that when the report is updated this Thursday, the changes Dr. Cullen described will be reflected."

Although TUSD has made a commitment to only reopen schools for in-person learning when county metrics indicate moderate transmission or better, it's not clear if other districts will follow suit. Many have already reopened in hybrid models, and are reporting coronavirus cases among students and staff.

A recent change in the Arizona Department of Health Services' (ADHS) school reopening benchmarks could further complicate the COVID-19 data schools must consider when deciding to open.

ADHS' guidelines for schools to safely reopen, which are the same as the countywide benchmarks, have recently changed to say schools should "start preparing for virtual learning" when all three of these benchmarks are in the "substantial" category for community spread. Before, their guidelines suggested schools should consider moving to remote learning when "one or more" of these benchmarks are in the red.

At a press conference on Oct. 29, Gov. Doug Ducey said the change was made at the request of "public education leaders and public health officials." However, both the Arizona School Administrators and the Arizona School Boards Association released a joint statement saying "neither ASA nor ASBA were included in discussions on the recent decision by DHS to change these recommendations regarding transitioning from hybrid to virtual instruction."

Although TUSD decided to pull the plug on reopening when one metric was in the red, all schools are no longer required to do so.

However, Cullen insists the Pima County Health Department is giving specified guidance to school districts based on the nine metrics in the county's COVID-19 progress report, and not solely the three state benchmarks.

"I think there could be a time when the health department might recommend that we move from hybrid back, even if not all three of the disease markers are red. All we do with the schools is we're a recommending body, the school districts make their own decision," Cullen said last week. "Pima County never went solely with the state guidance, for us, that's why we had the nine instead of the three."

That time of recommending schools move to remote learning has come, and after discussions with county health officials revealing Pima County has moved to substantial spread for a two-week decline in cases, Trujillo decided to follow the guidance.

"I have committed to honoring the expertise of the Pima County Health Department by utilizing their data to guide our decision making regarding the re-opening of our schools, programs and extra-curricular activities," Trujillo said in his letter to families. "It is in this spirit that I have made the difficult decision to not open the Tucson Unified School District for Hybrid Learning starting Thursday, Nov. 12."

In the letter, the superintendent said the current remote instructional model will remain unchanged, and "On Campus Learning Spaces" will continue to be available for "at-risk students, as well as any families that would like their children to be on campus."

In a Nov. 4 Pima County health update video, Cullen noted the "significant increase" in the county's cases and encouraged avoiding "crowded, close and confined areas."

"We are worried, we need everyone's cooperation," Cullen said. "We know there is respiratory transmission of this disease. We need you to work with us to try to, once again, help us stop this accelerated transmission phase we are now in."