Students head back for first day of school as COVID cases surge - AZEdNews
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Students head back for first day of school as COVID cases surge

Arizona Supt. Of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman Visits With Students On The First Day Of School At Saguaro Elementary School In The Casa Grande Elementary School District. Photo By Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Part 2 of the Back to school during a COVID surge series.

Excitement about the first day of school this year is tempered with concern as COVID-19 cases surge in Arizona.

On the first day of school Monday, Saguaro Elementary Principal Celie Downey-Foye welcomed students with enthusiasm at a balloon archway with Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman at her side, while Casa Grande Elementary School District Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales helped students learn who their teacher is.

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Saguaro Elementary Principal Celie Downey-Foye welcomes students at a balloon archway on the first day of school Monday, July 26, 2021. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

“It’s always exciting to start the year fresh. No other day brings as much promise, potential, and possibility! The energy at all of our schools was wonderful,” said Supt. Gonzales. “We can’t wait to challenge our students with rich learning experiences and social-emotional support, as many are returning for the first time since the pandemic started 17 months ago.”

Concerns include keeping everyone healthy, finding substitute teachers to ensure uninterrupted learning for students, and raising enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, Supt. Gonzales said.

“Over the past two weeks, we’ve had several staff members test positive for COVID-19. The Delta variant is highly contagious, and we do not want our schools to be a vector of spread amongst our students, their families, and our community,” Supt. Gonzales said. 

After families took photos at the arch and waved goodbye to their sometimes tearful children, staff members guided students to their new classrooms.

In one fourth-grade classroom, Supt. Hoffman visited with a table of students as they took part in a welcome activity.

“There is a palpable energy in the air during the first day of school and being a part of such excitement is so fun!” Supt. Hoffman said.

The start of the new school year is also marked by a sense of uncertainty for families, Supt Hoffman said.

AZEdNews video: Back to school at Saguaro Elementary and Casa Grande Middle School

Video by Brooke Martinez/ AZEdNews

“For most students, learning occurs best when in-person alongside their peers and a highly qualified educator and our schools are working diligently to provide all Arizona students with safe, in-person education,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“The health and safety of our entire school communities is a top priority this year. Thankfully, schools and public health experts have learned, and worked to implement mitigation strategies to prevent the spread of COVID-19, particularly for our younger students who are not yet eligible for a vaccine,” Supt Hoffman said.

Keeping students and staff safe

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Casa Grande Supt. JoEtta Gonzales helps students find out who their teachers are on the first day of school Monday July 26, 2021. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

To help reassure students, families and staff, Casa Grande ESD like many other school districts developed a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation plan that includes frequent handwashing and sanitizing, increased cleaning and disinfecting of touchpoint surfaces, bought and installed top-rated air purification systems last year, and improved the air exchange through HVAC units. 

While federal relief and recovery dollars have helped schools access additional funding for COVID-19 mitigation, many schools adjusted their budgets to meet those unanticipated expenses.

“Better filtration and open dampers are necessary to ensure better air quality, but they also come at a price. Allowing hot and/or humid air in from the outside has placed a burden on many of our aging HVAC units, and several units have failed over the past few weeks,” Supt. Gonzales said. “Our Facilities Services team has been scrambling to repair units quickly so as not to disrupt teaching and learning.”

One school needs a major HVAC overhaul, and Supt. Gonzales hopes the School Facilities Board will help, because “HVAC equipment and the personnel to repair them are very expensive.”

With student, staff and community safety the top priority, Dysart Unified School District installed 2,700 air scrubbers over the summer in buildings to improve air quality, said Renée Ryon, director of communications and public relations for the district.

The devices, which attach directly to the HVAC system and remove air pollution, contaminants, allergens, odors and dust, were purchased through Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) COVID funds, Ryon said.

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Dysart Schools installed 2,700 air scrubbers over the summer to improve air quality in schools. Photo courtesy Dysart Unified School District

In-person freshman orientations, a kindergarten experience, open houses and meet the teacher nights began this week in Dysart Schools, which is excited to welcome students back to campus on Aug. 3.

“This school year we will continue to have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), like masks, available to students and staff, as well as ample cleaning supplies.  We continue to encourage good hygiene practices, frequent hand washing and social distancing,” Ryon said. 

Bullhead City Elementary School District, where classes start Aug. 4, has been holding back to school nights starting this week and has limited class sizes to allow for greater social distancing and share their COVID protocols with families.

“Because of the rapid uptick in the delta variant, we have, however, asked parents not to send school supplies with their children for now,” said Lance Ross, public information officer for Bullhead City Elementary School District. “The District has made every effort to purchase enough classroom supplies for students and faculty.”

“We’ll continue to work with our community partners who so graciously have school supply drives, but we’ll continue to quarantine those items after we receive them,” Ross said.

Back to school during a COVID surge series:
Part 1: School districts respond to Gov’s office criticism for following public health COVID-19 recommendations
Part 2: Students head back for first day of school as COVID cases surge
Part 3: How new laws affect online instruction
Part 4: What would it take to rescind law prohibiting school mask mandates?

Communicating these health and safety measures with students’ families has been critically important for schools this year.

“We are constantly communicating with our parents via email, social media and ParentVUE regarding the start of the school year and our mitigation plans have been posted on our website. Fridays will remain deep cleaning days, and we will absolutely have sanitizers readily available,” said  Veronica Sanchez, director of communications and community engagement for Cartwright School District, where in-person Meet the Teacher Nights began this week.

Public health guidelines and state laws

As a learning community, Casa Grande ESD students and staff  experienced so much uncertainty over the past 17 months, Supt. Gonzales said.

“Many of our families have endured tough financial times, and many more have lost loved ones to COVID-19. Helping them understand what our schools can and can’t do by law is complicated,” Supt. Gonzales said.

The Arizona Legislature recently passed a law prohibiting schools from requiring students, staff or visitors to wear masks on campus as part of the budget package that Gov. Ducey recently signed into law.

Yesterday, Gov. Ducey said that law will not be rescinded and remains in effect.

“We’ve reiterated that masks are optional, and that everyone – regardless of choice – is to be respected,” said Ross with Bullhead City Elementary School District. “We have emphasized our commitment to opening in person and have asked for voluntary masking to help keep schools open.”

Yesterday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended that everyone wear masks at schools and indoors whether they are vaccinated or not in areas where COVID-19 cases are surging such as Arizona.

That follows guidance released last week by the  American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement supporting in-person instruction and guidance that says everyone over two years old at schools should wear masks whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or not.

Yesterday afternoon, the Arizona Department of Health Services also recommended that all staff, students and visitors at schools wear masks at schools and indoors regardless of whether they have received the COVID-19 vaccine or not.

Earlier this month, Gov. Doug Ducey’s education policy adviser Kaitlin Harrier sent letters to Peoria Unified School District and Catalina Foothills Unified School District saying they must rescind immediately their policies for a mandatory 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated students who have a COVID-19 exposure that exempts vaccinated students from quarantine, because it “does not comply with state law” that states schools “may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.”

Attorneys for the school districts responded that the school district complied with state law and that “Nothing in A.RS. § 15-342.05 restricts a school district from following guidance provided by federal, state and local public health authorities with regard to students who have been exposed to COVID-19. These authorities uniformly provide that a temporary quarantine is the appropriate course of action except for students who can demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated. It would not be appropriate or reasonable for school districts to ignore these public health standards, and A.RS. § 15-342.05 does not mandate that they do so.”

“Right now, there is a lot of confusion over the conflicting direction schools are receiving from various national, state and local agencies on handling different aspects of COVID,” Ryon said.

“It is important that the community understand that the decision of whether or not schools should require face coverings or COVID vaccinations is no longer at the school or district level. With the passage of the Arizona state budget, schools are no longer permitted to require face coverings or COVID vaccinations,” Ryon said.

As a result, Dysart remains committed to providing both in person and online options for students to ensure flexible opportunities for families.

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Arizona Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman visits with students on the first day of school at Saguaro Elementary School in the Casa Grande Elementary School District on Monday, July 26, 2021. Photo by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews

Dysart Schools is reminding families that students must be kept home if they are sick or experiencing symptoms of an illness, any staff or student that tests positive for COVID-19 will be required to isolate per CDC guidelines, and parents will continue to be notified if their child has had direct contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19, Ryon said.

“We continue to review the guidance from various agencies and will update our protocols as needed to ensure the health and safety of our students, staff and community,” Ryon said.

Casa Grande ESD will encourage the use of masks for anyone on campus who is unvaccinated and/or wishes to wear one but will adhere to Arizona Department of Health Services and Pinal Public Health requirements related to quarantines for students or staff who test positive or have close contact with those who have tested positive.

“The contradictory information coming from the state level makes it confusing for families and for our staff. Keeping things as simple as possible while communicating frequently is what we aim to do,” Supt. Gonzales said.

Sanchez said Cartwright School District shares in its communications with parents how the school district must comply with the Governor’s Executive Orders and the recent law.

“We are also strongly encouraging our scholars and families to wear masks as the metrics for COVID-19 cases in our area have doubled in the last week. It’s alarming, but we are being proactive in planning more vaccination events in our area,” Sanchez said.

In addition, there are vaccine incentives in the area, and full-time employees will receive a $500 stipend for showing proof of vaccination in November, while part-timers will receive $250, Sanchez said.

The Arizona Department of Education urges school leaders to rely on guidance from public health experts at the CDC, Arizona Department of Health Services and local health departments to guide their mitigation efforts, and also to comply with state and tribal laws.

“The Tucson Unified School District administration fully understands the importance to communicate all new policies and legislations referring to our schools in a timely manner. We want families to know that the safety and health of all our students is a priority and that we follow all federal, state and county recommendations,” said Karla Escamilla, senior communications coordinator for Tucson Unified School District.

The latest letter sent to Tucson Unified School District students’ families let them know about the new law that prohibits schools from requiring students and staff from wearing masks. Other parent communications let students’ families know that masks are welcome and strongly encouraged for all students, staff and visitors on campus and that the district follows the recommendations from the CDC, Escamilla said.

Supt. Hoffman said families can do their part by sending unvaccinated children to school wearing a mask, staying home if sick, getting tested if exposed to someone with COVID-19, and  asking the teacher or principal any questions about the school’s health and safety protocols.

“We have a wonderfully supportive community that entrusts us to care for and educate their children. Our teachers, paraprofessionals, nurses, counselors, bus drivers, nutrition staff, facilities team, office personnel, and school leaders all take this trust to heart each and every day as they work to ensure our students’ needs are met in a safe, clean, healthy, and respectful environment. We are all hopeful for better days ahead!” Supt. Gonzales said.