Payson’s return to in-person classes is going much more smoothly, now that most of the teachers have gotten vaccinated.

The district had 46 positive cases among students and 16 among staff for the week ending on Feb. 26.

However, since the return to in-person classes, only one unvaccinated teacher has been quarantined due to an infection or close exposure to a positive case, according to Superintendent Linda Gibson.

That contrasts sharply with clusters that developed before the teachers started getting shots, which forced so many teachers into quarantine the district had to at different times shut down the high school and the middle school.

Meanwhile, cases in the community have dropped sharply, as the post holiday surge has waned. Nonetheless, the infection rate in the community remains well into the zone the state and federal governments recommend a hybrid model that keeps large numbers of students and teachers from mixing daily.

Roughly half of the schools in the nation remain mostly in distance learning mode, despite the growing evidence that students struggle to keep up in distance learning classes. Although the top students suffer little, roughly a third of students often simply go missing from the online classes. Across the nation, parents are filing lawsuits and turning to private schools as the toll of prolonged distance learning mounts.

Payson recently reported on the results of skills testing after the first nine weeks of the initially distance learning semester and found most students struggling to master targeted grade level skills.

The district posts a weekly update on COVID cases on campus.

Positive cases by school site included eight at Payson Elementary School, four at Julia Randall Elementary School, 12 at Rim Country Middle School, and 22 at the high school — for a total of 46.

Among staff, the figures showed six at PES, one at JRE, three at RCMS and one at the high school, for a total of 16.

Another 171 students throughout the district had close contact with someone who tested positive as well as 42 staff members.

So far, most of the people who tested positive appear to have been infected off campus and the district has produced no clusters of cases spreading largely on campus or from one school site into the community.

The results are consistent with national studies. Those studies show elementary school students don’t easily catch or spread the disease. When they do, they mostly experience only mild symptoms — although some develop serious illness. Teenagers are more prone to infection and to spreading the virus, but also rarely get seriously ill.

Teachers face the biggest risk on campus — especially in high school where teachers interact with 150 or 200 students every day. By contrast, elementary school teachers usually mingle with only 20 or 30 students per day.

The vaccines for teachers and staff have made a huge difference in the disruptions caused by positive cases on campus, since the district’s grappling with a shortage of substitutes, which makes it hard to cover for teachers who must quarantine.

Nonetheless, health officials say schools should continue to require universal mask wearing on campus and avoid potential super spreader events like sports tournaments, assemblies or other activities that bring lots of people into close contact — especially indoors.

Payson remains at “very high risk” for the spread of the virus, although cases have dropped in the past two weeks.

For the week of Feb. 22-26, Payson was in the “red zone” for the infection rate and the percentage of positive tests, but in the “yellow zone” when it comes to hospitalizations. Originally, the state said any district in the red zone should offer only distance learning classes. Districts in the yellow zone should offer a hybrid schedule that avoided mixing large numbers of students.

The state has largely abandoned those guidelines, generally urging schools to offer in-person classes with restrictions like mask-wearing and limits on group gatherings. The federal Centers for Disease Control has also shifted its emphasis to precautions that allow schools to resume in-person classes safely, although the federal guidelines also say the key to opening schools remains controlling the spread of the virus in the community.

The national database maintained by the CDC indicates that in the past two weeks the number of new cases in Gila County has dropped by 54%, the hospitalizations due to COVID have dropped 45% and about 9% of the tests have come back positive. Still, the county’s getting an average of eight new cases a day.

On the other hand, Gila County has done far better than most counties or states in getting the population vaccinated. Perhaps 27% have gotten at least one shot and the county’s now making appointments for the general population. Another 13% of the population has recovered from an infection, which means also 40% of the county’s population has at least partial protection from an infection.

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