The Payson school board this week grilled administrators on whether the host of students quarantined for COVID-19 can keep up with their classes.
Payson schools have struggled with the impact of a surge in COVID cases this semester, largely driven by the highly infectious Delta variant.
As of Tuesday, the district had accumulated 115 positive cases among students and another 16 among staff and faculty. Those cases have also produced 824 close contacts. Both those infected and the unvaccinated close contacts must quarantine for 10 days from the onset of symptoms.
Currently, about 91 students and four staff members are quarantining at home, because they tested positive or were a close contact with someone who did, said Superintendent Linda Gibson. The district has about 2,300 students and 120 teachers in all.
The exemption from quarantine for vaccinated teachers has prevented a teacher shortage that could force a campus shutdown. Moreover, the district’s new, four-day school week has minimized the time lost as a result of quarantining, Nonetheless, the surge of cases has still forced many students to miss nearly two weeks of classes.
The tide of new cases ebbed this week, both in the school district and in Gila County generally. The number of new cases countywide has declined 31% as a daily average in the past two weeks — but remains at 46 cases per 100,000. That compares to a statewide average of 35 per 100,000. But it’s much better than Greenlee County, with 104 per 100,000.
On the other hand, Gila County’s hospitalizations have rise 11% in the past two weeks — which is not surprising since it takes about two weeks for someone who gets infected to become sick enough to require hospitalization.
The Gila County Health Department’s latest numbers show 89 new cases in Payson from Sept. 4 through Sept. 13, with six in Pine, two in Star Valley and six in Tonto Basin.
The high transmission rate in the county reflects a relatively low vaccination rate. Only 55% of county residents have had even one shot of the vaccine — which includes 9% of those younger than 20.
“We haven’t had a drastic increase in cases or in close contacts this week,” said Gibson. “It’s not like we’ve had a week with zero — but we’re getting one or two or three a day.”
The board at Monday’s meeting mostly focused on whether students can get the help they need to keep up with their classes online when they’re forced to stay home to quarantine.
“Now that children are being quarantined — how is that going? I know you were going to have everything set up for the kids,” said Board President Joanne Conlin.
The board has been beset by complaints from parents that students stuck at home have trouble getting their assignments and getting answers to questions when they’re stumped. The district does have Chromebooks for students to use at home, but many students still don’t have reliable internet at home.
“Our teachers are having Google Meets set up. That’s taking a couple of days to get situated,” said Gibson. “What I highly recommend is if parents feel connection is not being made — they should reach out directly to that teacher.
“All classrooms should have Google Meets — although there’s a little bit of an exception for kindergartners. School work at the office is available to them.”
The board had pushed the administration to improve the distance learning connections for students. During the earlier phases of the pandemic when the district had to shift to distance learning, test scores plunged and a large percentage of the students all but disappeared from the online class sessions.
Board member Jolynn Schinstock, whose kids have been quarantined, said things have gotten much smoother.
One school principal noted, “We do need to be making things as accessible as possible from our end. At this point, we just have to over-communicate the options that are available and the expectations.”
Studies have shown that children from higher income families with computers and internet at home and parents who work schedules that allow them to ride herd on the online lessons and homework suffered far fewer learning losses than low income students with single parents or two working parents without the time to keep close track.
“There’s a little bit of anxiety on the part of parents that ‘I’m not doing enough,’” said Schinstock. “The parents have a big stress level trying to educate their student.”
“That’s what I’m hearing as well — parents saying they don’t want to do this again,” said board member Audrey Hogue.
“All our parents are supporting their kids the best they can,” said Gibson.
Some board members complained about the inconsistency of the district’s COVID rules. For instance, the board has returned to social distancing at board meetings — separating board members’ seating and limiting the audience to 10 people. However, board members are also riding buses crowded with unmasked students and attending crowded athletic events.
The state has barred school-imposed mask mandates or vaccine requirements.
“If we can do social distancing, we will,” said Gibson, “but if it’s not feasible — then we don’t. I don’t know if it’s a decision — it’s more of a practice. You’re right, there are some anomalies. But we’re trying to do the best we can to mitigate COVID concerns.”
“This is hard for me,” said Schinstock. “I see (board member) Michell (Marinelli) at a football game and sit with her — but I can’t sit next to her at a board meeting.”
“Not every situation allows us to follow the protocols set by the CDC,” said Gibson.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a teacher right now,” said Schinstock. “I’m really proud of our district and our staff for going above and beyond. Our teachers, our staff — they’re doing the best they can and this is a tough, tough time.”
“We do understand the challenge,” said board member Barbara Underwood, referring to the difficulties parents without internet at home have when it comes to helping students keep up. “Even with the hot spot areas we’re hosting — kids are not getting on. I get it.”The state continues to come down on districts who seek to impose mask mandates or require faculty to get vaccinated — both recommendations of most health departments and the CDC.
Studies have proven well-designed, consistently used masks can dramatically slow the spread of COVID – although the delta variant is much harder to stop than the original strains. The vaccine has also proven much safer than most already mandated vaccines and 95% effective in preventing the spread of the virus and the development of serious disease. The vaccine has been fully approved for anyone older than 16. The FDA has issued only emergency use authorization for the vaccines for those between the ages of 12 and 16 and has not approved the vaccine for children under 12, due to a lack of sufficiently large, long-term clinical trials in those groups. Some school districts have already mandated the vaccine for students older than 12, adding the COVID shot to a list of mandated vaccines for things like measles, mumps, rubella and polio.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, has threatened to sue Tucson for requiring employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 24. The policy would impose a five-day suspension and the possibility of higher health care premiums for the unvaccinated, unless they have a medical condition or a “sincerely held” religious belief that would prevent them from getting vaccinated. Brnovich has said the city is trying to take advantage of a “loophole” because the new state law barring vaccine mandates by cities or counties doesn’t take effect until Sept. 29.
A new poll by High Ground, a Republican polling firm, found that 57% of voters say masks should be required in schools and government buildings and 52% said local government and school districts should be able to require employees to get vaccinated. However, 87% of Democrats and a majority of independents supported vaccine and mask mandates, but only 26% of Republicans.
Gov. Doug Ducey has also vowed to penalize schools, cities and counties that either issue mask mandates or require employees to get vaccinated. The federal government has said it will press for vaccine mandates for any business with more than 100 employees, which would include most school districts and many city and county governments in Rim Country and the White Mountains. Most federal employees will also be required to get vaccinated or get a COVID test every week, unless they have a medical or religious reason not to get the shots.