Payson schools will stick with distance learning at least through Oct. 12, the school board decided on Monday.

However, the district will open campus to students who need a place to stay and study starting Aug. 17 as required by Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order.

The small, K-8 districts in Pine, Young and Tonto Basin may well qualify for opening based on a zip-code-based analysis the state has promised to release on Friday. Each district has fewer than 100 students and the school boards for each district may find their communities meet the zip-code-based guidelines for the number of cases, the percentage of positive tests and the number of hospital-based illnesses.

But even though the benchmarks are confusing to some and the data is as much as two weeks behind, Payson and Globe will probably not meet all three benchmarks before Aug. 17, said PUSD Superintendent Linda Gibson. She said the administration has received constant, sometimes contradictory directives from the state and had a long meeting with county health officials.

The school board vented its frustration.

“There’s no consistent data,” said school board member Michell Marinelli, “we can’t really get accurate data.”

“These rationales don’t really make sense, it’s ridiculous,” said board member Jolynn Schinstock.

“We get the order from the governor and then the guidance from the department of education and they contradict one another,” said Director of Finance Kathie Manning.

The frustrated board learned Payson doesn’t meet any of the three state-recommended benchmarks for opening in the midst of the pandemic.

Given the still-widespread presence of the virus, the concerns of teachers and parents and the potential impact of opening and then closing again, the school board decided to continue distance learning for at least the first quarter of the school year. However, the district will also offer supervised places on campus for students to spend the day and study. At this point, the district has no idea how many students will come to campus once the doors open on Aug. 17.

The district will offer meals on campus and will also continue to deliver meals by bus to students who qualify for federally subsidized free and reduced lunches. Extracurricular activities — especially sports — will remain suspended but could resume if the district meets the benchmarks before Oct. 12.

The three criteria include:

  • A decline in new cases for two weeks or new tests showing fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 population. Gila County remains at about 218 cases per 100,000 population — which is now above the state average.
  • A decline in the percentage of positive tests to below 7%. The state health department said Gila County’s percentage of positive tests is 17.6% and rising.
  • A decline in patients at the hospital with COVID-type symptoms or a positive test to below 10% for two weeks. Figures used by the state put Gila County’s rate at 8.8%, but that includes an average from three counties, said Gibson. Nonetheless, this is the one criteria Payson could meet before Aug. 17.

The board expressed deep frustration mingled with resignation at the lurch into yet another semester of distance learning, with such fragmented and sometimes contradictory state and federal direction.

On Monday, a group of Arizona physicians and education advocates criticized Ducey’s school reopening guidance as “inadequate, incomplete and irresponsible.”

COVID-19 has killed more than 4,000 Arizonans and sickened more than 183,000. The physicians and education advocates spoke as a new report showed Arizona has the nation’s highest number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, Arizona’s rate of COVID-19 cases in children is 1,098 per 100,000, more than double the overall national rate of 447 per 100,000 children.

The physicians and educators recommended safety measures that include:

  • Requiring students and staff wear masks in school, except for the youngest students.
  • Requiring COVID-19 testing of all students, teachers and school staff several times in a school year, more regularly as funding and low-cost rapid-result tests become available.
  • Reopening schools to face-to-face learning only when local percent positivity rates are below 5%.
  • Partnering with public health agencies for immediate contact tracing efforts to identify infections, isolate individuals and stop outbreaks from happening.

“Gov. Doug Ducey’s so-called ‘Roadmap for Reopening Schools’ is a roadmap for more viral outbreaks, suffering and sickness,” said Dr. Christine Severance, DO, a family physician and mother in Phoenix. “We all want to minimize disruptions to our children’s education as much as possible, but also to keep students and school staff safer during a deadly global pandemic, and Gov. Ducey’s benchmarks are inadequate, incomplete and irresponsible. As a physician, I’d give Gov. Ducey’s plan to reopen schools, like his failed actions to keep COVID-19 under control, an ‘F’ for failing to require science- and evidence-based safeguards.”

This semester the district has already issued Chromebooks to every student in grades 3-12 and this week will also issue computers to kindergartners and first graders. Moreover, teachers now have more experience in converting their classes to an online model, and the district had bought additional online curriculum.

Gibson said only about 1% or 2% of students in the district have no access to the internet and that distance learning has proceeded much more smoothly in the last two weeks, compared to the abrupt shift last spring. Students can go to the Payson Public Library if they need to access internet.

Board members said they want to return to in-person classes as soon as it’s safe for the students and staff.

“We have kids that need to get back to normal life. They’re really hurting,” said Schinstock.

“We have to rally together for our community,” said Gibson. “We have to step up and be brave for our kids. We are making history, but our kids need us to be brave and carry them through. We need to model how we want our kids to behave.”

She noted that one student has been riding his bike to school for 30 minutes each day to come and sit all day on a bench in the high school parking lot, where he works on his studies on his Chromebook.

“He’s our first hero,” she said.

“I know we’re all concerned about the cost to students of having no in-person contact,” said Schinstock. “It’s devastating. I just plead that the moment we can bring students back, that’s where I want to go.”

“But you’re right,” said Manning. “It’s very likely we won’t be able to come back in person until January.”

“It’s our worst nightmare,” agreed Gibson. “But we need to all support the decision made and be positive about it, even though our heart is aching.”

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