Audrey Hogue and Jolinn Schinstock

“I feel like COVID is not going anywhere and these kids are losing their education ... I’m tired of it. I’m tired of my kids — and other people’s kids — not getting the education they deserve.”

Audrey Hogue

School board member

A string of Payson parents and school board members on Monday complained about the need to quarantine students exposed to COVID – even as cases explode in the community.

The Payson School District has been following state regulations by requiring the close contacts of students who test positive for COVID to stay home for 10 days – which was recently dropped to five.

Currently, that includes 17 students who have tested positive and 21 close contacts, according to information posted on the district’s website. The district has 2,400 students.

However, those numbers will likely increase quickly – with the arrival of the new, highly infectious Omicron variant causing a 141% increase in new cases in Gila County as a daily average in the past two weeks.

That’s less than the 266% increase statewide or the 205% increase nationally. However, Omicron was late in arriving in Arizona. States where Omicron took over several weeks ago – like California – have reported increases in daily cases greater than 600%.

Omicron remains far less dangerous to children than to older adults, but the number of children hospitalized rose to 4.3 per 100,000 for the week ending Jan. 1 from 2.6 the previous week. About 800 children younger than 18 were hospitalized nationally, an 80% increase over the previous week.

The Arizona Academy of Pediatrics this week appealed to schools to impose mask mandates in classrooms and group activities and to encourage parents to get their kids vaccinated.

Courts have overturned Gov. Doug Ducey’s ban on mask mandates in schools, so the Academy of Pediatrics urged districts to slow the spread of Omicron with a return to on-campus masking.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19,” the academy said in a statement this week. “Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”

In the meantime, the Academy urged universal masking indoors – given the low vaccination rates in communities like Payson. The statement also supported quarantining close contacts – unless they’ve been vaccinated and have no symptoms.

However, four people who spoke at the Monday meeting and several board members disagreed with that advice, suggesting that the district should lift the current requirement that close contacts without symptoms stay home for at least five days.

Rebecca Waterman, who has five children in school and works with a community youth football league, said COVID poses little risk to students. “The last letter that was sent to my child said that we were going to go back to masking with a close contact situation, which I feel is going backwards. I highly disagree with masking and I disagree with keeping our kids out of school. I feel like we’re going backwards and this is something that’s not going to go away.”

Ben McDowell agreed, saying he supports vaccinations – but not requiring close contacts without symptoms to quarantine. He also objected to allowing vaccinated close contacts to remain in class while requiring unvaccinated close contacts to quarantine.

“You’re creating two classes of citizens. I’m not an anti-vaxxer. We agree they are good to prevent serious illness and death. But if you’re vaccinated, you can still spread it.”

Moreover, he said kids lose ground every time they’re required to stay home – even though the district says they can keep up with work in class online.

“My daughter has just been quarantined for the fifth time. I was told by the principal that Google Meets would have all her classes. She tried to log into every class – but just one out of 10 was available. She reached out and got information from her teacher – but Google Meets is not there.”

Jeff Robbins supported mask mandates as the best way to control the spread of the virus on campus. He also urged the district to outfit each class with a portable air filter – preferably one that treated the air with UV light as it passed through the filter – which studies have shown dramatically reduce the viral particles in circulation.

He said quarantining a large number of children without symptoms sets them back academically – but doesn’t prevent them from mixing with classmates after school.

“I understand the concern. Testing, monitoring, vaccines, filtering the air – those things make sense. But quarantine?”

He wore a N95 mask, but was the only one wearing a mask in the board room. “Unless you’re prepared to issue these to every student and faculty member,” he began, “but why aren’t you wearing one right now? It’s the only device that will prevent spread” besides near-universal vaccinations.

Mike Schinstock, a wildlands firefighter and the husband of board member Jolynn Schinstock, also criticized the quarantine policy. He said students should stay home if they have symptoms, but quarantining close contacts costs students far more in academic progress than it gains in protection.

“All these absurd measures we’ve taken. We’re told to be scared – and many of us are. The fact is, we’re in the process of sacrificing the future of our nation’s youth. The median age of death (from COVID) is 80 – and the life expectancy in this country is only 78. Those most vulnerable are people over 65 or people with co-morbidities. Children are not grossly affected. This needs to stop.”

Federal statistics indicate that people younger than 18 account for about 22% of COVID cases, but only about half a percent of deaths. On the other hand, people older than 65 account for about 17% of cases and 76% of deaths.

Several board members also sharply questioned County Health Director Michael O’Driscoll, who joined the meeting on conference call.

“How many kids are hospitalized – not even 1%,” said board member Aubrey Hogue. “So I think it’s horrible we’re ruining kids’ education to keep them home when they’re healthy.”

“We’re not seeing a high number of kids hospitalized,” said O’Driscoll, “which is fantastic. But we have this tightrope we have to walk – with the state and CDC guidelines. We can walk out tomorrow and in one week the CDC has changed the guidelines three times. It’s frustrating as hell.”

“I feel like COVID is not going anywhere and these kids are losing their education,” said Hogue. “They’re never going to get this time back. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of my kids – and other people’s kids – not getting the education they deserve.”

Schinstock added, “both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated can both get COVID and spread COVID, so why would we keep the vaccinated at our schools – particularly in sports – when they can spread and get it, but the unvaccinated have to go home?” asked Schinstock.

Josh Beck, the county health department’s COVID response coordinator, said that the vaccine sharply reduces the odds someone will get infected – and spread the virus.

He said the breakthrough infection rate remains about 20% among close contacts for people who are vaccinated. That compares to an 80% infection rate among the unvaccinated close contacts.

That difference in infection rates at the end of a month produces 10 new cases among vaccinated close contacts compared to 125 cases among unvaccinated close contacts.

Board member Barbara Underwood said she didn’t want Payson to become the test case for defying state law and federal advice when it comes to the quarantine rule for close contacts.

Finance Director Kathie Manning added, “from a financial standpoint, our insurance policy is contingent on following guidelines.”

Nonetheless, Schinstock asked the board to schedule a study session to talk about updating the COVID guidelines.

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