A surge in COVID cases on campus prompted the Payson school board to tweak its pandemic protocols at an emergency meeting on Monday.

The board affirmed that anyone who tests positive must quarantine off campus for 10 days from the onset of symptoms.

However, the board rejected a recommendation to require the close contacts of those students to also quarantine, as recommended by the state health department and the federal Centers for Disease Control. Instead, the district will simply encourage close contacts to stay home.

In addition, the board directed the district to improve the online lessons and communications for students who stay home after an exposure. The board also urged Superintendent Linda Gibson to hire additional staff to handle the huge task of notifying and educating parents and staff members who come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.

As of Monday, Payson schools had 23 confirmed or suspected cases, including 19 students, two staff and two people with symptoms but no test results. Another 164 students and staff are considered “close contacts,” which means they spent at least 15 minutes within six feet of the person who tested positive.

The number of cases and close contacts has more than doubled in the past week in Payson, with school just two weeks into the semester. Most of the positive cases are at the middle school (8) or the high school (6). About 20% of the students and staff at Rim Country Middle School are considered close contacts.

Gibson noted that several close contacts urged to stay home over the weekend showed up for school on Monday.

In calling the meeting, Gibson wrote to the board that “there is extreme evidence within schools in AZ and it has begun this weekend for us.”

She noted some cases involve on-campus spread.

“This was NOT the case last year. We also have four times as many cases and close contact cases in two weeks as we did for the entire fall semester last year.”

This likely reflects the impact of the Delta variant, which spreads at least twice as quickly as the original strain. It may also spread more readily to children.

Gibson noted that Gila County’s now considered a “high transmission” area, with between 7% and 10% of tests coming back positive and a high infection rate. Only 43% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated and only 8% of those under 20 years old. The pandemic is surging again in states like Arizona with low vaccination rates.

Gibson recommended the board require close contacts who don’t have symptoms to quarantine for 10 days, unless they have a positive test after five days.

However, after a frustrated discussion, the school board made only minor changes in the current rules.

For starters, anyone who tests positive must quarantine and stay off campus for 10 days after the first symptoms appear. The previous policy allowed people to return to class if they had a negative test after five days, which apparently violated state law.

But the most difficult discussion centered on whether to require the close contacts to also stay home to prevent on-campus clusters from spreading into the community. The Gila County Health Department and the CDC both recommend a 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated close contacts.

However, on a 4-1 vote, the board opted to leave it up to parents and staff to decide whether to stay home after close contact.

The board opted not to join other school districts in challenging the new law banning mask mandates or policies that take vaccination status into account.

Research shows the vaccines dramatically reduce the spread of the virus and all but eliminate the risk of death or serious illness. That applies even to the Delta variant, which spreads twice as fast. Studies have yet to establish whether Delta makes people sicker. In any case, kids face a much lower risk of serious illness or death than adults. Of the 4.1 million U.S. children infected so far, 90% have few, if any, symptoms. Fewer than 2% have wound up in the hospital and about 300 have died. However, infected children can readily spread the virus to other people — especially if they’re carrying the Delta strain.

The board was constrained by a new state law banning both school mask mandates and any policy that treats unvaccinated people differently from vaccinated people.

Gibson said, “You have the Arizona Department of Health Services on one side and the governor on the other side. Some districts are bucking the governor right now.”

“It’s total confusion,” said board member Barbara Underwood.

Gov. Doug Ducey has threatened to withhold state funds from several large districts that have restored a mask mandate in the face of rising cases. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge this week ruled the new law won’t take effect until the end of September, but the courts have not yet ruled on the legality of the new law.

Board member Jolynn Schinstock said she’s currently at home with one child who has tested positive. She is also quarantining her other children, who are close contacts. She expressed frustration at the conflicting advice from the school and health officials, as well as the lack of a smooth system for ensuring her children can keep up with their classes while at home.

Board member Michell Marinelli urged people to stay home if they have symptoms but didn’t want to require quarantine for close contacts. “Our district needs to be in-person. It’s a parent’s choice.”

Board member Audrey Hogue said, “I think kids’ education needs to come first. Online education has failed our kids. If they don’t have symptoms, they should be able to come to school. People don’t want their child to get tested if they have no symptoms. There’s not enough information, it’s not enough — and we’re going to ruin our children’s education.”

Research has showed that infected kids can spread the virus even if they have no symptoms — especially the Delta strain.

Board president Joanne Conlin said, “We don’t know where this is going to go. The numbers are getting higher. This is a new strain. We certainly don’t want to shut down schools because all the kids are getting COVID.”

Schinstock said, “This is a very tricky situation.”

Last year, the requirement to quarantine teachers after close contacts forced two campuses to shut down for lack of substitute teachers. Health officials have said vaccinated people don’t have to quarantine after a close contact, because their risk of infection and serious disease is so low. Some 99% of the surging deaths in the country have been among the unvaccinated.

But the new state law requires the district to quarantine everyone if they quarantine anyone.

The board urged Gibson to launch new programs to ensure students who do quarantine can keep up with their classes — including watching lectures online, participating in group work and meeting with teachers. Currently, they mostly go online just to get their assignments and turn in their work.

The board also reacted strongly to the revelation that each positive case requires school administrators to spend three to five hours notifying close contacts.

Board members urged Gibson to use some of the millions of dollars in COVID relief money the district has received to hire people to take over those tasks, enabling administrators to get back to a sustained focus on student achievement and support.

Conlin summed up the feelings of the board as COVID cases surge, just two weeks into the start of a new school year.

“This is certainly not what we wanted to be doing this year,” she said.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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