The buck apparently stops with the school board.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey last week announced each school district will have to decide when it’s safe for kids and teachers to resume in-person classes.

That includes settling on criteria related to the local spread of the virus.

The governor’s decision leaves districts free to offer distance learning indefinitely, so long as they also offer space on campus for parents to send children if they have no where else to go.

School districts will have to at least start offering distance learning on the normal start date – which in Payson’s case is Aug. 3. However, the school board has until Aug. 7 to decide what criteria to adopt to guide the decision on when to resume in-person classes. Ducey had previously said must in-person classes must start on Aug. 17 for parents who want them.

Payson Unified School District Superintendent Linda Gibson did not return calls prior to press time seeking comment on the governor’s order.

However, the Payson School Board had already decided to launch distance learning for all students on Aug. 3, buoyed by federal money that has made it possible to issue each student a Chromebook. The district has already started checking out the Chromebooks to each student and requiring teachers to offer instruction online from Aug. 3 to Aug. 17.

The district also made plans to require the use of masks on campus and on buses, a requirement that echoes the state plan. The district plans to check for symptoms daily, although studies suggest perhaps half of those infected show no symptoms but can still spread the virus. It’s unclear whether the district could obtain enough tests to do adequate screening and contract tracing, given the growing national shortage of tests.

The district’s also surveying parents to find out who might need help getting Internet at home so students can use the Chromebooks to resume Distance Learning. No one knows how many parents will simply keep their children out of school, although the state has promised to cap funding losses at 5 percent of last semester’s enrollment.

Last semester during the shift to distance learning, 20 or 30 percent of students all but disappeared from class, since they didn’t have a computer or an internet connection at home. National studies suggested that students from high-income families did pretty well with distance learning, but many students from lower-income families struggled and lost months of learning progress. About half the families in Payson qualify for free-and-reduced school lunches based on income.

Gov. Ducey promised districts the state won’t impose a normal 5 % funding penalty for distance learning classes. He also promised to give districts a 5%, per-student increase for in-person classes, relying on an additional $370 million in federal CARES Act funding.

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control has issued much less stringent guidelines for school reopening – following harsh criticism from President Trump, who said schools must re-open for in-person classes soon or face the loss of federal funding. The CDC’s new guidelines don’t place as much stress on social distancing in classrooms and lead off with a statement on the importance of resuming in-person learning.

It's unclear whether the US Department of Education will follow through on a threat to cut federal funding for school districts that don’t quickly resume in-person classes.

A month-long surge in Arizona’s COVID-19 case load prompted Gov. Ducey to back away from his earlier, optimistic timetable for the resumption of in-person classes.

Health experts elsewhere have issued various criteria for in-person classes, based on community spread of the virus. Many European and Asian countries have reopened schools without seeing sizeable new clusters of cases on campus. However, all those countries have reduced new infections and deaths much more successfully than the US – which still has the most cases and the most daily new infections in the world. Those countries also had testing capacity to screen every child in class and their close contacts when a new case was detected. In Arizona, backlogs have delayed test results by a week or more in many cases.

Arizona’s case count soared after Gov. Ducey lifted his “stay at home” order on May 15. On Friday, the state reported 3,350 new cases and 79 new deaths.

However, the rate of increase has slowed in the past two weeks. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has also declined, peaking at 3,500 on July 13 and declining to about 2,850 on July 23.

The death toll has continued to rise. However, that probably mostly reflects infections contracted a month ago, which means the virus could be ebbing even if deaths are rising.

Gila County’s doing a little bit better than the statewide average. The county now has an infection rate of 1,167 cases per 100,000 population and 38 deaths. That compares to a statewide average of 2,174 cases and 44 deaths. Gila County has a high death rate relative to the number of infections because of clusters of cases in nursing homes, which account for many of the deaths locally.

Gila County’s also doing better than the rest of the state on another figure schools might use to decide when it’s safe to resume in-person classes – the percentage of positive tests. Some 6.4 percent of the county’s most recent swab tests for an active infection have come back positive. That’s a small increase from the 5.2 % average since the start of start of the pandemic.

By contrast, the some 15 % of the recent state tests have come back positive, compared to 13 % over the course of the pandemic.

Epidemiologists say the percentage of positive show be below 5 % and on the decline to ensure both that the virus isn’t accelerating and health officials are doing enough testing to understand the extent of the spread.

Neither Gila County nor the state currently meet that criteria, but at least Gila County’s close. Moreover, the county numbers are skewed by a big outbreak on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

The complexity of judging the status of the pandemic locally underscores the huge task the governor’s order has shifted to school board – generally without any clear cut guidelines to follow.

The still-vague order leaves school districts and parents with a host of decisions to make.

For starters, even if schools decide to mostly rely on distance learning for the next several months in hopes the virus will wane, they must provide staffed space for any students who show up for lack of a way to work safely and effectively at home. During the first shutdown, many parents weren’t working and could stay home with their children. Now, more workers have been required to return to the workplace, creating a childcare nightmare for many.

School boards might also find themselves grappling with still haunting unknowns when it comes to the impact of the virus on children.

Substantial evidence suggests that elementary school children face a relatively low risk of getting infected, developing serious symptoms and perhaps spreading the virus to their teachers or one another. Moreover, they don’t do as well when it comes to Distance Learning. So can districts resume in-person elementary school classes while relying on distance learning for middle school and high school students? This could allow districts to use middle school classrooms for elementary school classes, reducing the number of students in each class and coming closer to meeting social distancing guidelines, with six feet between desks. But in that case, where do they get the additional elementary school teachers?

In reality, school boards will find themselves overwhelmed with the complicated decisions now thrust on them, the need to protect teachers and staff, confusion and concerns on the part of parents and a host of other problems.

And all this without clear guidelines from either the state of federal government, with distance learning classes slated to begin next week.

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(1) comment

Bruce W Heffner

Perhaps the reckless school boards need to be responsible to their students once in their lifetime....stop putting the decisions on the governor..........and make them yourself. Not matter what decision the governor would make you and Peter would find something wrong with it. Better yet, consult with BLM, they seem to know those answers too!

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