Gila County has finally hit the advisory state benchmarks for at least a hybrid reopening of schools — with a mix of in-person and online classes and other measures to avoid mixing large groups of students.

At the end of the week of Aug. 30, the county had spent three weeks with a positive test rate just below 7%, three weeks with an infection rate below 100 cases per 100,000 and two months with hospital visits for COVID-19 below 10%.

The benchmark suggests only “moderate” spread of the virus in the community — with even lower rates in Payson compared to the whole county. The progress apparently clears the way for the planned return to in-person classes on Oct. 12.

The improvement should also allow the phased reopening of high-risk businesses like bars, gyms, water parks, theaters and other businesses. Most of those higher risk businesses will have to maintain social distancing and reduced capacity until benchmarks suggest only “minimal” spread of the virus in the community. Currently, only Greenlee County meets the benchmarks for minimal spread.

One national database shows that even though the virus has declined significantly from its peak in Arizona, the number of new cases has actually increased 65% in the past two weeks — which likely reflects a relaxation in mask wearing and the impact of the gradual reopening of schools and high-risk businesses.

In the past two weeks, Gila County as a whole has averaged about 10 new cases per day and an infection rate of 19 per 100,000 — which is tied for the third-highest rate of spread in the state and double Maricopa County’s rate of spread. Only Tucson (22 per 100,000), and Coconino County (35 per 100,000) have maintained higher rates of spread in the past two weeks according to a national database maintained by The New York Times.

Moreover, health experts and computer models suggest that with moderate or minimal rates of spread in the community, schools should not simply return to business as usual.

Studies suggest near-universal use of masks will play a key role in preventing school clusters. The Payson Unified School District plans to require students and faculty to wear masks whenever possible. The MHA Foundation has promised to provide every classroom with enough masks for all students and teachers, as well as supplies like hand sanitizers.

Medical experts also recommend a comprehensive testing program for anyone with symptoms or a suspected exposure. That would include contact tracing for anyone with close contacts if a case develops. Arizona currently doesn’t have that testing capacity and it’s unclear what the testing plan will be once schools reopen.

A study based on computer modeling published in the medical journal Lancet suggested that schools can avoid an outbreak if they quickly test between 75% and 87% of people with symptoms and then test 65% of close contacts of those cases, even if the contacts don’t have symptoms. Studies suggest people without symptoms probably account for about half of the spread of the virus.

The Lancet study assumed that people younger than 20 are only half as likely to contract the virus or spread it as adults. Other studies have suggested that teenagers might contract and spread the virus as readily as older adults, although they’re far less likely to develop serious symptoms.

“To prevent a second COVID-19 wave, relaxation of physical distancing, including opening of schools, must be accompanied by large-scale, population-wide testing of symptomatic individuals and effective tracing of the contacts, followed by isolation of diagnosed individuals,” the study’s authors concluded.

Another study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University found that social distancing works. The study found that the use of public transportation and even visiting a crowded place of worship significantly increased the risk of testing positive. For instance, in the study involving 1,000 people in Maryland, people who used mass transit were four times as likely to test positive for exposure to the virus. Those who reported practicing strict social distancing had an infection rate one-tenth of those who did not, according to the study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases. People who attended church regularly had 16 times the infection rate.

Payson schools plan to resume bus transportation when school reopens for in-person classes, but will require students to wear masks on the bus and get a temperature check and answer a series of health questions when they arrive at school to screen for possible infection.

Payson schools are surveying parents to find out how many wish to have their children continue with only distance learning classes for the rest of the semester. Based on those findings, the district will figure out how many students it will have on each campus and how it can minimize the mixing of students during the school day.

That’s easy in the elementary school grades, where students remain with a single teacher in a single classroom throughout the day. It’s harder with middle school and high school students, who on a normal schedule take five or six classes during the day — each with a different group of 30 students.

So far, the district plans to return to a more or less normal schedule when school reopens.

A growing number of schools are electing to full return to in-person classes rather than a hybrid model once the spread of the virus in the community drops to “moderate” levels — like Payson, according to a story last week in The Arizona Republic.

For instance, Scottsdale schools dropped a hybrid plan that brought elementary school students back for in-person classes first, with high school students waiting several weeks. Parents mostly panned the hybrid plan, preferring a full return to in-person classes.

Gilbert schools also started off with a hybrid plan — with students alternating days on campus. The district shifted to full in-person classes after two weeks, ignoring the benchmark recommendations for a continuation of a hybrid schedule.

In Maricopa, the county health department reports there have been COVID outbreaks at eight schools since August. There have been 35 cases, 24 of which involved students; 11, staff.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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