State needs better plan for COVID outbreaks in schools, educators say

With local officials saying it's only a matter of time before COVID outbreaks hit schools once they reopen for in-person instruction, state officials have yet to provide standardized guidance of what districts should do when students or teachers test positive for the virus.

The Tucson Unified School District has already closed two schools and another school's classrooms since the beginning of the school year due to COVID-19 exposure. According to TUSD spokesperson Karla Escamilla, a student in the KIDCO program located at Irene Erickson Elementary (6750 E. Stella Road) tested positive for the coronavirus. Out of an abundance of caution, Pima County health officials and TUSD leaders decided to close the campus for two weeks, beginning on Aug. 25 until Sept. 7. Students using Erickson's on-campus learning spaces will be moved to remote learning during this period.

A Rincon High School staff member working in two special education classrooms tested positive for COVID-19. The district decided to shut down those classrooms but did not close down the rest of the school, located at 21 N. Arcadia Ave. Escamilla said special education classes will move to remote learning for 14 days.

According to the district's website, Tolson Elementary School (1000 S. Greasewood Road) was closed from Aug. 18 to Aug. 31 at the recommendation of the Pima County Health Department, but no further information is available.

On Monday, Aug. 24, the Arizona Department of Health Services issued an emergency measure requiring schools, child care centers and shelters to report outbreaks of COVID-19 to their county health departments. This applies to public, charter and private schools with students in grades K through 12.

ADHS defines an "outbreak" as "two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 within a 14-day period among individuals who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and are not close contacts of each other in another setting."

The state health department said this measure provides schools, child care providers and shelters with a format for reporting COVID-19 cases within 24 hours of identification.

"Procedures on how to report and handle cases of COVID-19 will help schools as they navigate this most unprecedented school year," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman in a press release. "This emergency measure gives schools the instructions they need to correctly report cases as we head further into the new academic year."

Right now, if districts do have a positive case of COVID-19 in one of their schools, they are required to fill out a form provided by their health department and work together to decide the best course of action.

The Amphitheater public school district plans to send home anyone at a school site who has symptoms of the virus. According to Amphi Communications Director Michelle Valenzuela, if the symptomatic person is a student, staff will quickly isolate them and call their parent or guardian to be picked up.

Amphi will follow Pima County Health Department guidelines for preventing the spread of coronavirus and will close down schools if needed. Valenzuela said the health department provides districts with resources, guidance and weekly Zoom meetings for updates on COVID-19 in the region.

At this time, ADHS recommends that school boards and county health departments discuss an emergency operations plan. They recommend the plans include: emergency communication strategies for sharing information with staff, parents and student about a COVID-19 outbreak; flexible attendance and sick leave policies for students and school staff; a developed system for alerting the local health department of large increases in student absences due to COVID-like symptoms; strategies for continuing education if schools are closed for an extended period of time; continuity of social, medical and meal services even if schools close; and designated isolation rooms and transportation services for students and staff who are sick.

But many educators in Arizona are dissatisfied with the state government's strategy for reopening schools. In an Aug. 21 letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Arizona Education Association President Joseph Thomas said a statewide school safety plan to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is desperately needed. He urged Ducey to create one or pass the responsibility to Superintendent Hoffman.

"Everyone agrees students are best served with in-person instruction and with access to safe classrooms, qualified educators, and healthy meals," Thomas wrote. "This is most critical for students of color, whose communities have been more susceptible to the virus, and whose families are unable to be at home with the children because of professional obligations."

Thomas said the safety plan should include a statewide face mask mandate for all schools and buses until the end of the 2020-21 school year; COVID-19 safety protocols for school districts regarding exposure notification plans for students and employees; cancellation of this year's statewide testing; flexibility for school districts regarding the 180-day school year mandate; and additional funding that is "necessary" to ensure schools can provide "safe and healthy learning environments" when they do reopen.

The state's dashboard shows that two of three metrics that guide reopening have been met statewide, with a two-week decline in cases and two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illness in the region below 10 percent. A third benchmark, with the number of positive tests below 7 percent of all people tested for two consecutive weeks, has been reached in four rural counties, but Pima County could hit that benchmark later this week.

Thomas said because of the state's lack of a safety plan, district leaders are feeling pressured to bring thousands of students and employees back to campuses "regardless of community spread."

Thomas wants to see local safety plans that include sufficient safety equipment and supplies for all districts. He said districts should provide alternatives for employees with underlying health conditions so they can continue working without having to put their lives at greater risk.

Further on that point, he suggested school districts that do require employees to come to campuses provide justification that their work is "critical in nature and cannot be accomplished at home."

"Thousands of education support professionals have already reported to their school sites, bus barns and maintenance facilities," Thomas wrote. "These public school employees are putting themselves and their families at risk while districts struggle to acquire the personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies necessary to maintain a safe workforce."

Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams said Arizona's decreasing trends in COVID-19 data are promising, but schools cannot let their guard down yet. He warned against the process of closing and reopening schools repeatedly, but said there are small opportunities for supplementing online learning with in-person interaction.

"What I think you might be able to see is some small cohorts of groups that follow the social distancing rules, you might see it in your younger grades to start with, and then you'll have a blend of also remote learners that are still going to school in that fashion," Williams said. "But for full-blown opening, at this very given time it's still too high of a risk."

Williams noted that public school districts, charter schools and private schools all have full autonomy over whether to bring students back to campus or not. At this time, Pima County public school districts are holding off on traditional in-person classroom learning at this time. But two charter schools, Leman Academy of Excellence and Legacy Traditional Schools, resumed in-person classes in August.

For more information on what districts and the Pima County Health Department are doing to keep school communities safe, visit the Back to School webpage.