Gila County remains far from ready to open its schools for in-person classes, according to the state pandemic benchmarks released last week.

After a long wait that has frustrated school officials, the state released three measurements for school boards to consider.

The Payson school board has previously decided to not open for in-person classes until October if the county didn’t meet the state benchmarks before the planned opening of campus on Aug. 17.

It’s at least possible Gila County might meet one of the three benchmarks by Aug. 17 — the percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like illnesses. The school board met on Monday night to discuss the new benchmarks, past press time. See the Roundup’s website for a story about what they decided.

The Arizona Department of Health Services issued three benchmarks, but school boards remain free to not return to in-person classes whether the county hits the recommended measures. The Arizona Department of Health Services posted charts showing how each county’s doing, with the most recent averages dating back to April 26. Some counties may have improved in the two weeks since the benchmarks listed on the site.

So here’s how Gila County stacks up on the three recommended benchmarks as of July 19:

Recommendation: A two-week decline in new cases to less than 100 confirmed cases per 100,000 population.

Gila County: Case counts in Gila County have been rising steadily, with Payson accounting for about half the cases countywide. The state shows the cases/100,000 increasing from 77 on the week of July 5 to 113 the week of July 12 and 120 the week of July 19.

Recommendation: Two consecutive weeks with the share of positive tests remaining below 7% — which is a little higher than the standard of 5% used elsewhere.

Gila County: The share of positive tests here has soared, rising from 11% for the week of June 21 to 13% the week of July 12 and hitting 18% the week of July 19. The percentage of positive tests has risen much faster than the total number of tests, suggesting the virus remains widespread in the community.

Recommendation: Three weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illness below 10%.

Gila County: The percentage of hospital visits by people with COVID-like symptoms stood at 15% on the week of June 28. It declined to 11% on July 12. Hospital visits for COVID-19 finally dropped to 8% in the week of July 19, below the benchmark.

The guidelines also included a second category in which schools might reopen for hybrid online and in-person classes, something like Payson Center for Success offered before the pandemic. In that case, the county might not meet all the benchmarks but still bring students back for classes in a modified way, perhaps with a staggered schedule.

The state’s still leaving the decision on restarting individual classes up to individual school boards. They’re free to ignore the benchmarks or continue with distance learning, even if the county meets the recommended criteria.

The Payson school board had previously suggested that if the county didn’t meet the benchmarks, distance learning would continue for the first quarter ending in mid-October. The board didn’t set a deadline for deciding, which depended on the actual state benchmarks.

The district has already started distance learning. Every student now has a Chromebook, and every teacher is offering an online version of their classes.

State schools chief Kathy Hoffman hopes districts follow the benchmarks.

“Schools should adhere to these benchmarks,’’ she said. “And school boards should be held accountable by their community members to follow the public health recommendations.’’

Even if the district doesn’t opt to resume in-person classes on Aug. 17, the schools will still have to provide a safe place where students can study and get help. This state requirement has created major uncertainty and staffing issues. If teachers are all teaching distance learning classes, the district may have trouble finding people to supervise the unpredictable number of students who might show up for what amounts to academic day care.

Districts that offer in-person classes will also have to undertake an array of precautions according to the state mandate. That includes requiring faculty and students to wear masks, enhanced cleaning procedures, proper ventilation in classrooms and buses and monitoring absenteeism.

The guidelines don’t indicate whether schools should shut down and isolate or quarantine either individual classes or whole campuses in the event someone gets infected. In other states, schools immediately ran into problems when students and staff showed up infected — prompting disruptive starts and stops. The guidelines also don’t require testing, since the state remains critically short of test kits and the labs to process them. Payson schools said they would administer daily temperature checks to try to identify possible cases, although about 40% or 50% of people infected with the virus will likely show few or no symptoms.

Hoffman said the on-campus services for children even if a school doesn’t have in-person classes represents a “safety net,” especially for children with special needs or counseling or mental health needs.

The district doesn’t have to provide classroom space for those students who show up needing a place to spend the day. Schools could use large facilities like gyms to allow for social distancing between students. Payson has the added advantage of having provided each student with a Chromebook. This means students can work on their online classes, using the school as a WiFi hotspot, perhaps with help from teacher’s aides and people supervising the student areas.

Even if schools reopen for in-person classes, parents can opt to continue with distance learning. “We know that some parents are not going to be comfortable sending their kids back until there’s a vaccine or until there’s minimal spread,” said state health director Cara Christ, according to a story from Capitol Media Services.

Hoffman in a press conference announcing the benchmarks acknowledged that schools trying to return to in-person classes might have a hard time finding enough teachers. Many veteran teachers have decided not to return if districts return too quickly to in-person classes. The teachers face a far higher risk of serious illness and death than the students, according to numerous studies.

Hoffman noted the state already has “a very severe shortage” of qualified teachers. In January, teachers without the normal credentials or teaching on an emergency certificate filled 20% of the teaching positions statewide.

Several Payson teachers have already served notice that they’ll retire early rather than return to in-person teaching with the virus still widespread in the community. Some have complained about the lack of masks on campus so far, even without kids yet on campus.

“Despite schools’ best efforts to retain their teachers and find ways for them to feel comfortable for them to teach in this incredibly challenging environment and challenging times, there are increased rates of teachers resigning,’’ Hoffman said.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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