The Arizona Department of Education, Arizona Department of Health Services and school leaders held a media conference today asking students’ families and communities to limit activities now and during upcoming holidays to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and AZDHS Director Dr. Cara Christ were joined by Vail School District Supt. John Carruth, Mesa Public Schools Supt. Dr. Andi Fourlis and Roosevelt Elementary School District Supt. Dr. Quintin Boyce at the media conference.
“I asked Dr. Christ to join me today to talk about the critical intersection of public health and public education, Supt. Hoffman said. “And I asked some school leaders to share with Arizonans what our school communities are facing right now.”
Public health officials have been telling Arizonans for weeks that we are in the middle of a huge spike in COVID-19 cases, “and 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,” Supt, Hoffman said.
“As cases rise in Arizona, school leaders face the impossible decision of closing school buildings for in-person learning so students and teachers do not become sick,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“When our schools close in-person instruction it is devastating to our communities,” Supt. Hoffman said.
Rising cases impact learning models
Last week, more schools in Maricopa County shifted from hybrid or in-person instruction to online and distance learning as COVID-19 cases increased among staff, students and in their communities.
As of Friday, there were 53 outbreaks in schools and 235 COVID-19 cases in Maricopa County, according to Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
More schools return to online learning as COVID-19
Some of the schools that transitioned back to virtual learning include Campo Verde High School in Gilbert Public Schools, Youngker High School in Buckeye Union High School District, Agua Fria Union High School District, Apache Junction High School and Tempe Elementary School District.
Apache Junction High School in consultation with the Pinal County Public Health decided to temporary close on-site learning from Nov. 6 thought Nov. 20 with a return to on-site learning on Monday, Nov. 23.
On Friday, Dysart Unified School District released a dashboard tracking COVID-19 at their schools similar to the one Chandler Unified School District launched earlier this school year.
“We’ve had to make very tough decisions about what learning is going to look like to ensure that we are safe,” said Mesa Public Schools Supt. Dr. Andi Fourlis during the news conference.
Currently, Mesa High School is the only school in the school district that is operating on a two-day modified in-person learning model, Supt. Fourlis said.
“Case counts that spread throughout the school were a trigger to dig deeper into that data,” Supt. Fourlis said.
“We had taken other steps like quarantining a sports team, but that did not stop the spread, so we moved to that two days a week modified in-person learning and that will continue and we will monitor,” Supt. Fourlis said. “Our goal of course is to get our kids back. All of our kids back to five days of in-person instruction, but we have to make really wise decisions.”
A community message went out to the Mesa Public Schools community today that Nov. 30, which is the Monday after Thanksgiving , will be an all remote learning day, Dr. Fourlis said.
“That decision was made because we know public health officials are talking to us about the impact the Thanksgiving holiday will have,” Supt. Fourlis said.
“We want our kids to stay home one more day that way we can mitigate the spread and if symptoms start to crop up, we can get our kids and our staff tested so they can properly recover and not bring the virus into our schools,” Dr. Fourlis said.”
None of these decisions come lightly, Dr. Fourlis said.
“We need a community effort to continue to let our schools stay open and to make sure that we are making wise decisions, because we know that while many of us had COVID-19, we know that COVID has not been defeated, so it is still alive and well and we have to follow the guidelines to keep COVID-19 out of our schools,” Supt. Fourlis said.
Why mitigation strategies are crucial to schools
“The more that we ignore this virus, the less stability that we provide our students and families,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“Many of Arizona’s schools, especially those on our tribal nations have not yet been able to open for in-person instruction or hybrid learning at all this year,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“The students who’ve been engaged in distance learning since March could remain so for some time,” Supt. Hoffman said.”That’s a long time for students to go without interactions with their peers, without the structure, familiarity and support found in a typical school day.”
“And I’m heartbroken to hear about the rise of youth mental health issues such as increased feelings of hopelessness and youth suicide in our state,” Supt. Hoffman said. “To be a young person in 2020 is to experience a world that nor even the adults in their lives can make sense of.”
“One child lost to suicide or one educator lost to COVID-19 are one too many, and already this year we have far surpassed that,” Supt. Hoffman said.
“This is a year where we have all already sacrificed so much,” Supt. Hoffman said. “Our daily patterns have been disrupted and I know this is tiring, but we cannot lose our determination now. We should expect efforts to protect our students and schools to come with continued sacrifice.”
Last week, the Arizona Interscholastic Association made recommendations that winter sports practices and competitions are not safe to begin in eight of Arizona’s 15 counties, including Maricopa.
“In just that last two weeks, two high school coaches lost their lives to COVID-19,” Supt. Hoffman said. “When a student or colleague loses their life, our teachers, students and school leaders must all try to forge ahead in teaching and learning while dealing with the devastation of losing a close community member.”
The thought of losing a sports season is difficult, but the thought of our students and educators dealing with that loss, while trying to manage successful learning is nearly impossible,” Supt. Hoffman said.
Impact around the state
The movement back to virtual learning is affecting other areas in the state where COVID-19 cases are rising as well.
“Following health guidance from our local Pima County Health Department, we have been operating our schools in the hybrid model for the past seven weeks,” Vail School District Supt. John Carruth said during the news conference Monday afternoon.
Supt. Carruth, who has been an educator in Arizona for more than 25 years, said no previous experience compares to this year.
“We have experienced the tragedy of death by suicide of two of our students this year,” said Supt. Carruth, of the school district in southeast Pima County that serves 14,000 students.
“We have seen a significant increase of staff who have left the profession due to medical reasons, concerns for their health or to take care of their own child and family,” Supt. Carruth said.
To help students learn well , you have to take it seriously, Supt. Carruth said.
“Everyday I wake up and pray for the wisdom and strength to make decisions that will keep loss to a minimum – loss of learning and opportunity, and the loss of people, students and staff,” Supt. Carruth said.
Education is a community effort, Supt. Carruth said.
“We must prioritize education through our individual and collective choices and make some hard decisions in our activities and gatherings we participate in outside of school,” Supt. Carruth said.
“Simply, we must stop the spread of this virus to ensure that schools can continue to remain open,” Carruth said.
Tucson Unified School District Supt. Dr. Gabriel Trujillo let students’ families and community members know that they will not open for hybrid learning on Nov. 12 as initially planned after he met with Pima County Health Department leaders and learned that the “county will be in a state of widespread community transmission of COVID-19 at the time of our planned opening.”
Dr. Trujillo encouraged families to view the Pima County health Department’s Nov. 4, 2020 video describing the situation.
“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,” Dr. Trujillo said in the press release on Friday.
Tucson Unified will continue to have on-campus learning spaces open for at-risk students and families who would like their children to be on campus. The on-campus learning paces will continue to feature access to remote instruction and basic campus services for students that attend.
What it’s like in hardest hit communities
Roosevelt Elementary School District Supt. Dr. Quintin Boyce said they see large increases in COVID-19 in their schools community and have remained in virtual learning mode since the beginning of the school year.
“Since spring when campuses closed, we’ve worked extremely hard to close the digital divide,” said Supt. Boyce, whose district serves 8,000 students in South Phoenix.
Many Roosevelt Elementary School District students were not connected to reliable, high-speed internet and community partners helped make substantial changes in that, Supt. Boyce said.
But many students and their families have fallen on hard times and “we’re trying to help them with that,” Supt. Boyce said.
Students have been attending classes virtually in Roosevelt since the school year began, Supt. Boyce said.
“In our three ZIP codes, we’ve seen some of the highest transmission rates and percent positivity all within our own backyard,” Supt. Boyce said. “We also know it is no secret, there is a direct correlation between COVID and poverty rates, so for us it was really important to take care of our community and take care of our families.”
The school district would like to offer in-person instruction after winter break, “but the reality is that the numbers are concerning and we’re monitoring those numbers as we get closer,” Supt. Boyce said.
“I want our students back in our schools,” Dr. Boyce said. “I worry about the social emotional state of our students not being in school.”
Everyone at the school community from school governing board members to teacher and staff are making difficult decisions from a data-driven standpoint not an emotional standpoint, Supt. Boyce said.
“Our students in our community oftentimes live in multi-generational homes,” Supt Boyce said. “That is really important and that influences the decisions that we make.”
“Schools have actually demonstrated that we are champions when it comes to mitigation protocols, but the reality is that when it comes to nights and weekends – things that happen outside of the school – and what happens outside of the school impacts what happens inside of the schools,” Supt. Boyce said.
It’s important to get COVID cases under control so we can get back to the normality of teaching and learning that we truly love,” Dr. Boyce said. “It’s been an incredibly difficult year so far.”
Education leaders are doing an amazing job during extremely challenging times, said Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ.
“Our schools play such an important role in the lives of our children,” Dr. Christ said.
The spread of COVID-10 continues moving in the wrong direction with a significant increase in the past week, Dr. Christ said.
An alarming increase has been seen in students’ mental health issues and in students considering suicide, Dr. Christ said.
“We have a critical need for coping strategies and access to mental health services for our youth,” Dr. Christ said.
“Tragically, this year we have already surpassed last year with the number of suicides in children,” Dr. Christ said.
“We realize this year has been extremely difficult for everyone, but especially our children,” Dr. Christ said.
“We’re working to contain COVID-19 from all angles, and we continue to take action in light of the recent increases,” Dr. Christ said.
Those actions include increasing access to testing, providing resources to schools and partnering with community groups, business and schools, Dr. Christ said.
“Today, we’re launching a new campaign called Healthy Kids, Open Schools to provide schools and parents tools they can use to keep their kids healthy, prevent transmission and keep schools open,” Dr. Christ said.
“This campaign focuses on the importance of keeping kids home when they’re sick or have a positive test result, the importance of following public health recommendations including a 14-day quarantine or a 10-day isolation period, and notifying school administration of any symptoms or test results, and very importantly requiring masks use at school and on the bus in addition to any time kids are around other kids who don’t live with them including extracurricular activities, sports and just hanging out with their friends,” Dr. Christ said.
In addition to social media messaging, the campaign includes a website with information on when to keep kids home from school, where families can get free masks and nearby testing locations, Dr. Christ said.
The Arizona Department of Health Services has also been working with the Arizona Department of Education and Arizona State University to put together a pilot project to provide additional resources for schools, Dr. Christ said.
“This will provide our pilot schools with things like surveillance testing, communications tools, public health technical assistance and virtual education resources,” Dr. Christ said.
AZDHS has also partnered with the Arizona Medical Association and ACCCHS to provide free caregiver counseling for health care workers and “we are working to develop a similar strategy to offer teachers and school administrators free peer-to-peer counseling to help them cope with the impact COVID-19 is having on our schools and students,” Dr. Christ said.
“In order to keep our schools open, everyone must do their part,” Dr. Christ said.
There are options to help families who want to continue their special holiday traditions, but also prevent the spread of COVID-19, Dr. Christ said.
“We recommend moving your celebrations outside to your backyard or to a local park where outdoor air provides better ventilation,” Dr. Christ said.
If you celebrate indoors, create spaces where people can be distanced from one another, and use a patio and open windows and doors to increase ventilation, Dr. Christ said.
Reduce the gathering to a smaller number of people than is typical, Dr. Christ said.
“You can use a tablet and virtual meeting programs to link multiple families together without exposing one another,” Dr. Christ said.
“Consider celebrating virtually with your college aged students or your higher risk and elderly relatives,” Dr. Christ said.
Stay physically distant and don’t hug people from outside your household.
Avoid passing food items or serving buffet style, and if your hosting make masks and hand sanitizer available for all guests.
Also, do your Black Friday shopping online.
“From COVID-19 to influenza to suicide there are so many challenges that Arizonans are facing,” Dr. Christ said. “While Arizona has prioritized suicide prevention strategies over the past few years, we can see that the impact of COVID-19 makes it more important than ever. And while it’s important to stay physically distant it’s important to stay socially connected.”
“We know that this has been a very difficult year, and we understand that many have grown very tired of the mitigation strategies but we can’t let up,” Dr. Christ said.
“So please, wear a mask when you’re in public, stay physically distanced from people you don’t live with, consider moving small gatherings outdoors to reduce transmission, wash your hands frequently and avoid large gatherings, and stay home if you’re sick and finally please get your influenza shot,” Dr. Christ said.
“All this will go a long way in keeping our community safe, our schools open and our kids and our loved ones healthy,” Dr. Christ said.