If Payson can’t meet the still-unknown state health benchmarks for reopening schools on Aug. 17, Payson schools will stick with distance learning until at least Oct. 12, the school board decided on Monday.
But even if that happens, the state will still require the district to offer what amounts to academically supervised day care to any student who needs it starting Aug. 17.
“We can’t control anything, but we can control when we provide some continuity and consistency for our families,” said Superintendent Linda Gibson. “The inconsistency of opening and closing and opening and closing is profound.”
“I’m worried about the children’s mental health,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock.
“We can’t keep playing this back-and-forth game with our children and our staff,” agreed Gibson. “It’s just too painful. This is an extremely painful decision. There are no rules to this game and no winners to this game. Everybody is suffering.”
The state is expected to release benchmarks for reopening on Aug. 7, but even then Gov. Doug Ducey said each school board will have to decide what to do on its own.
The district has already made its plans for an in-person opening, depending on the still mysterious state criteria. The plans include masks, daily temperature checks, questioning children about symptoms, enhanced classroom cleaning, spacing out kids in the classroom and some limiting in the gathering of large groups of kids.
The district surveyed parents again in the past two weeks and found that about 70% said they felt very or somewhat comfortable returning to in-person classes. About 30% of the parents and a similar proportion of the staff said they’d rather rely on distance learning, said Gibson.
So even if schools reopen for in-person classes, the district will also provide a distance learning option for every student.
“Each site is working to address their students’ and families’ desire for an in-person or distance learning platform,” Gibson said in a letter sent to staff and parents Wednesday. “If a student remains a distant learner, we respectfully request that he/she remains online for the quarter for grades pre-K-5 and for the semester for grades 6-12.”
The Payson Unified School District this week started checking out Chromebooks to every student in third to 12th grade — which prompted lengthy lines on the first day of distribution. The district also has Chromebooks for the younger children, but for now plans to keep those in the classroom. That may change if the district ends up not offering in-person classes.
The Chromebooks will make it easier to offer distance learning classes for the upcoming semester. The district used some $500,000 in federal CARES Act money to buy enough Chromebooks to implement the plan. The district is also asking parents without the internet at home to seek the district’s help in obtaining service.
The district wants to resume in-person classes on Aug. 17, but not if the community doesn’t meet the state’s criteria for demonstrating the virus is under control.
The federal Centers for Disease Control has released new guidelines for returning to in-person classes. The guidelines note that international studies in countries that opened elementary schools have seen only limited clusters. Young children are much less likely to contract the virus and generally have only mild symptoms if they do. This suggests high school students, teachers, staff and family members face a greater risk from a school-based infection than the younger children themselves.
Arizona still hasn’t released its health criteria, leaving schools in limbo after months of uncertainty and improvisation.
Nationally, epidemiologists have said a two-week decline in new cases plus a decline in the percentage of positive tests suggests the virus may be decreasing in the community. However, that advice depends on widespread testing. Arizona has one of the lowest test rates in the country, and a backlog has delayed results for a week or more — making the trends more uncertain. This could also complicate any reopening plan, since schools may not have access to enough testing to confirm a new case that could start a cluster.
Gibson noted that Payson has a good chance of meeting the state’s criteria, with the percentage of positive tests much lower than the statewide average — but even that’s in doubt based on the trend for the past two weeks.
Payson once had one of the lowest per-capita caseloads in the state. But that’s changed since the expiration of the state’s stay-at-home order in mid-May. A surge of cases in the past month has pushed Payson’s per-capita infection rate up to the state average.
Gila County now has more than 900 cases, which works out to a cumulative infection rate of 1,302 cases per 100,000 since the start of the pandemic. That compares to 2,252 cases per 100,000 statewide. However, in the past seven days, the statewide rate of new infections has fallen, but Gila County’s share of new cases has continued to rise. In the past week, Gila County’s infection rate has nearly caught up to Maricopa, Apache and Navajo counties — but remains below the state’s new hotspots in Yuma and Santa Cruz counties.
On Wednesday, Payson reported 15 new cases and one death. And on Thursday, there were eight new cases and three deaths.
Epidemiologists said if more than 5% of the tests are coming back positive, it either means the virus is still widespread or doctors are only testing people with obvious symptoms.
Statewide, the percentage of positive rate after the stay-at-home order expired peaked at around 27% — the highest in the nation. The rate has declined to about 15% in the most recent results posted on the state’s website. That’s still three times higher than the threshold recommended in previous health guidelines.
For months, Payson’s percentage of positive tests was 1% or 2%. However, the cumulative rate is now 5.9%. The most recent rate is even higher — about 7%.
The school board and administrators on Monday expressed frustration at finding themselves still unable to agree on a clear-cut strategy, given the possibility a new state order could upend any plan they conceive.
Board member Barbara Underwood asked, “So does that mean we’ll have bus routes” starting on Aug. 17? The state’s current order will require the district to open the campus for any students who show up, even if the board decides to not offer in-person classes.
“We do not have to provide transportation,” said Gibson. “However, I would be very careful about making the decision we wouldn’t provide transportation.”
For instance, children with special needs have fared especially poorly in the shift to distance learning. Many of their parents will likely need help and may send many of those children back to school for the sake of a safe place to stay.
“The executive order says we have to provide a safe space for all kids — including those with special needs, with higher needs — it’s for all students. When we say we’re opening in person for small group instruction, tutoring, internet accessibility,” we’re still not sure what that looks like.
For instance, the district at this point has no idea whether half of the district’s 2,400 students will show up — or just a handful — even assuming the district opts not to open for in-person classes at all.
Gibson noted that the district won’t make a teacher handle both an in-person version of the class and a distance learning version for the students who opt to continue online. But until it’s clear whether the district will have in-person classes and how many students will still remain online, it’s almost impossible to finish working out the plan.
“We will be using our parapros” like teachers’ aides to supervise students on campus who aren’t attending in-person classes, said Gibson.
Moreover, the district’s leadership council still hasn’t talked through offering in-person instruction for children younger than 10 and distance learning only for middle school and high school students. Teenagers resemble adults when it comes to spreading the virus, but still have a much lower rate of serious infection than older adults.
The longer the discussion went on, the more uncertainties emerged.
“This is a hard one,” said Schinstock.
“It’s awful,” said Gibson.
The superintendent tried to sum up the uncertainties, while everyone waits for promised state guidance on Aug. 7.
“This is not saying we won’t open on the 17th. It’s saying if we have to be pushed out, we want to be pushed out to the end of the quarter. The outlook is pretty good we open in-person on the 17th. That’s what we have said to our families and our teachers — we will open in-person as soon as we can. We are looking for some kind of united front. We want our kids back in person. But if we have to push out further, we’re asking to remain distant until the end of the quarter,” in October. “But until we have those solid numbers, the last thing we want to do is make a plan, pull it back, make a plan, then pull it back again.”