The Payson school board at a special meeting this morning will decide whether schools should return to in-person classes as planned on Jan. 19, despite the surge in infections in the community.

The board had decided on Monday to return to in-person classes due to the known cases, however Superintendent Linda Gibson warned the board that the situation might change. Check the Roundup’s website for the outcome of that Friday morning special meeting.

Currently, the district’s tracking 21 positive cases among faculty, staff and students and about 45 close contacts, although everyone’s still teaching and attending classes remotely.

“We’ve come back from the break obviously still in distance learning. We’ve had really good support from staff and families,” said Gibson.

“I keep thinking how wonderful the staff is,” said board president Joanne Conlin. “I would like to give a big shout-out to the district for all the hard work they’re doing — you’re a caring and hardworking group of people. We’re very proud to be part of this district. There isn’t anything easy about this.”

However, with the virus spreading nearly out-of-control statewide the district could quickly find itself once again facing quarantines and staff shortages that could force improvised school site closures quickly when in-person classes resume.

Payson remains deep in the red zone on the state’s benchmarks for in-person classes. The state has made the benchmark recommendations purely advisory, leaving local school boards on the hook for the agonizing decision.

During the holiday break, two-thirds of the teachers and staff in the district got the first shot in the two-dose Moderna vaccine. Most won’t get the second dose until the first week of February. The clinical trials suggested the vaccine provides 95% protection a week or two after the second dose. The first dose provides perhaps 60% protection within a week or two.

Gibson said the district and the county health department are keeping track of confirmed cases among students and staff, even during the distance learning period.

Active current cases include nine students from every campus except Julia Randall Elementary. In addition, the district is tracking 12 cases among faculty and staff, with five cases at Payson Elementary, one on each of the other campuses — plus four more cases at district offices.

In addition, 35 students have had close contacts with someone who tested positive as have 10 staff members working at the district offices and every campus except JRE.

The district remained in the red zone for new cases, the percentage of positive tests and hospitalizations for the week ending on Jan. 8 in the Payson zip code — with measurements generally 3-5 times higher than the level recommended for in-person classes.

However, so far the district hasn’t identified a single case in which anyone got infected as a result of activities on campus. Almost all of the positive cases on campus have been traced to a family or community exposure.

National studies suggest that if the rate of spread in the community is low, schools don’t foster fresh clusters of cases — especially at the elementary school level. However, those studies also suggest that if the virus is widespread in the surrounding community schools can serve to launch fresh clusters — especially at the high school and middle school level.

School-age children rarely suffer serious symptoms from the virus and are more slow to pass it along, especially children under 12.

School boards across the state have been left to make the difficult decision, with little guidance from the state or federal governments.

In fact, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman remain locked in a dispute about the wisdom of in-person classes and the constant change in the state’s advisory guidelines.

This week in his state of the state address, the governor defended his handling of the pandemic, now that Arizona has again become the state with the fastest spread of the virus. In the past two weeks, Arizona has seen a 53% increase in cases — more than 9,400 per day. Deaths have risen 118% and hospitalizations 17%. The whole hospital system is on the brink of being overwhelmed — with 93% of beds filled. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has confirmed 627,000 cases and 10,147 deaths. Actual cases are probably much higher, since perhaps 40% of those infected never develop symptoms.

Fortunately, Gila County’s no longer near the top when it comes to infection rates. In the past week, Gila County has reported 106 new cases per 100,000 population — below the statewide average of 130 — but far above the national average.

Ducey doubled down in urging schools throughout the state to return to in-person classes as quickly as possible.

“In strange and difficult circumstances, parents and teachers have done their resourceful best. But it’s time to get our students back where they belong.”

The governor added that the state would “not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure.”

This prompted many educators to react with alarm to what appeared to be a suggestion that the state might cut funding for schools that continued with distance learning, rather than resume in-person classes.

When the pandemic first hit, the governor promised to use federal relief funding to make sure that districts didn’t suffer more than a 5% drop in funding due to COVID-related enrollment declines. However, enrollment has dropped by 50,000 statewide as parents keep their children home or shift them to private schools or home schooling. As a result, the state backtracked and provided only about one-third to one-half of the money promised.

The Payson Unified School District’s enrollment declined by about 15% and funding dropped $600,000 more than anticipated due to the change in the state’s formula.

Moreover, the state pays districts just 95% of the normal per-student support when a student is in an online class. Payson has operated so far this semester in something of a hybrid mode, which means it reserves Fridays to help struggling students keep up — which means reduced payments from the state.

State Superintendent Hoffman called Ducey’s remarks “a slap in the face” to teachers who have been struggling mightily since last spring to cope with the virus — including converting their classes to an online format for long stretches.

“What I would have liked to hear is a commitment to fully fund our schools because we do not have a state budget shortfall,” Hoffman told The Arizona Republic, while noting that Ducey also suggested he will seek additional cuts in income taxes.

At this week’s school board meeting, Gibson said the people currently in quarantine due to close contact with a positive case will likely be clear to return to school and work by Jan. 19, when in-person classes resume.

But that could change if fresh cases turn up this week.

“Right now, we don’t have the number of cases in our school community that would preclude in-person classes — even though our zip code data is red. We know the best thing for kids is to be in-person and we don’t have data that says a staff member is getting it from kids — or kid-to-kid in school. It’s in families that the spread has occurred.”

She noted that other educators have said Payson was “super smart” not to return to in-person classes when the holiday break ended.

She said the state’s guidelines have changed repeatedly. “They have changed every month on how we are to make the decision — so right now my recommendation to the board is based on the data available to me. I believe this week the numbers will peak and start to fall.”

Board member Barbara Underwood said, “The governor should have said, these are the rules, this is the mask mandate, these are the recommendations. But the rules and recommendations change every week, it seems like.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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