The Payson school board Friday decided the district should remain in distance learning mode until at least Feb. 8.

The board also decided to resume offering on-campus support services on Jan. 19, to help parents and students keep up with the demands of distance learning.

The decision to postpone in-person classes for another three weeks came amidst rising numbers of COVID cases in students and staff as well as an all-out effort to get school staff vaccinated.

“Nothing is certain,” said Superintendent Linda Gibson, “but there is a very confident feeling that after Feb. 8 we would be able to come back strong and not have another closure for the remainder of the year” due to the impact of vaccinations.

About two-thirds of the school staff have gotten their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine — which means by now they’re perhaps 60% less likely to get infected if exposed. School staff will get the second, booster shot the first week in February. So by Feb. 8, those who opted for a vaccine will have roughly 95% protection from infection.

A third of the school staff opted not to get the free vaccination.

The impact of the vaccine played a leading role in the two-hour discussion on Friday morning at a hastily called special board meeting.

Currently, the district’s tracking at least 33 positive cases among students and staff and two more with COVID-like symptoms. At this point, 67 other students and faculty have had close contact with someone who tested positive. At least 16 staff and 48 students could not return if the district resumed in-person classes on Jan. 19 as originally planned.

Once the school staff completes the two-dose vaccination regime, teachers won’t have to go into quarantine when they’re exposed to a student or staff or family member that tests positive, said Gila County Health Director Michael O’Driscoll, who participated in the meeting telephonically.

The school board agonized over the decision, convinced students do best when attending in-person classes — but still anxious to protect staff, students and their families as the pandemic rages out of control across the state.

“At the high school, we’d be in trouble (covering classes with substitutes) if we even had one or two new cases,” said PHS Principal Jeff Simon.

“We know that in-person is best for kids when it comes to learning, that’s not in doubt,” said Gibson. “The bottom line is that whatever decision is made — we have to walk out of here as a team. It’s about consistency for families and for kids — even though that might not be ideal.”

Payson Elementary School Principal Michelle May said her staff was evenly split, with 40% wanting to continue in distance learning, 40% wanting to return to the classroom and 20% good either way. However, she noted that keeping up with reported cases and notifying close contacts has proved difficult.

“If it was me leaning in one direction, I would ask that you consider remaining closed for a couple of weeks so we can get the numbers down,” she concluded.

Arizona remains one of the national hot spots for new cases, with hospitals now full and the death toll rising. Last week, the rate of new cases rose 62% and deaths up 92%. Each day, the state has been reporting close to 200 new deaths and close to 10,000 new cases. Health officials say the most recent surge likely reflects all the mingling of households and close contacts in the course of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Board member Jolynn Schinstock captured the sorrow and determination of the board in facing the tough tradeoff between student learning and safety.

“While our teachers are hard at work educating our 1700-plus students, their own children are home alone — isolated and lonely and left to fend for themselves. We know there are students home suffering and grieve for the passing of a very precious and special seventh grader. However, I’m encouraged to hear that our families seem to have settled in (to distance learning).”

She said the decision of two-thirds of the school staff to get vaccinated represents “a light at the end of the tunnel. In two short weeks they’ll receive the second round of shots. At that point, they will not have to quarantine due to a close contact. So I think we owe it to staff, students and parents to continue distance learning for at least three weeks.”

The meeting made it clear that student learning will take a hit because of the additional time in strictly distance learning mode — especially at the elementary school level.

The principals of each of the district’s four campuses reported on how things are going. Each of them leaned toward the continuation of distance learning until teachers can get the second shot. Before the Thanksgiving break, dozens of teachers and hundreds of students had to quarantine for two weeks after close contact with just a handful of positive cases. The district didn’t have enough substitutes to cover for the quarantined teachers and so both the middle school and high school had to shut down.

“Students need consistency, teachers need consistency — the up and down is just too much for anybody,” said board president Joanne Conlin about the repeated campus closures on short notice.

The board didn’t discuss a solution that schools in other states and countries have pursued, which relies on distance learning for middle school and high school and in-person classes for elementary school students.

Younger children are resistant to infection and rarely develop serious symptoms if they do get infected. They appear much less likely to pass the virus along to someone else if they are infected. In Arizona, those younger than 20 account for just 16% of cases. Nationally, 1 in 10,000 children who are infected may develop a still poorly understood inflammatory disease that can in rare cases prove fatal — but most of those who do develop that condition recover.

That means children in elementary school are far less likely to suffer serious side effects or pass it along to other children or staff.

Moreover, it’s easy to keep elementary school children isolated from one another and most faculty members because most spend all day long with a single teacher.

However, elementary school children lose the most learning when in distance learning settings, due to their shorter attention span and greater struggles with technology. The board discussion on Friday indicated that the younger children typically spend an hour or two in Google Meet settings, but mostly work alone or with their parents to complete lessons. The younger children are also likely to simply not log in — and their parents may not respond to efforts to contact them.

The same thing happens at the high school and middle school level, with teachers struggling to keep a share of the students engaged. However, a single infected middle school or high school student mingles with hundreds of other students and six or seven faculty members every day. This means far more close contacts must quarantine when a middle school or high school student tests positive.

The discussion on Friday made little distinction between elementary grades and the middle school and high school grades. Principals, administrators and board members focused instead on the hope that vaccinating at least two-thirds of the teachers will allow the resumption of in-person classes after Feb. 8, without any more breaks caused by the need to quarantine students and staff through the end of the year.

Josh Beck, with the Gila County health department, said he hopes cases are peaking now due to all the social mixing during the holidays and that the spread of the virus will slow in coming weeks. Moreover, the county hopes to vaccinate those over 75 and many front-line essential workers in the next several weeks, while starting to make a dent in the over-65 population as it receives more vaccine.

“Even getting 35% of the population vaccinated will put up a big wall to the spread of the virus,” he said.

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