Back To Class

Masked-up students walk from the bus into Payson Elementary School on Monday.

Teachers and students have greeted the return to in-person classes happily, despite continuing concerns about COVID cases on campus and the spread of the virus in the community, according to school officials at Monday’s school board meeting.

The vaccination of an estimated 75% of the school staff has dramatically decreased the disruption caused by positive cases among students. Moreover, a growing expert consensus supports the idea that schools can operate safely even if the virus is spreading in the community if they embrace key precautions like universal mask wearing and limiting group activities.

Superintendent Linda Gibson said parents have welcomed the return to classes. “We’ve only heard support for remaining open for in-person instruction,” she said.

However, the district enrollment’s still down 15% since before the pandemic hit and another 10% of students have elected to remain in distance learning programs. That has strained the budget due to state funding formulas — but has also made it easier to socially distance in normally crowded classrooms.

The great majority of the staff have now received their second Moderna vaccination, which confers 95% protection against an infection. As a result, vaccinated teachers won’t have to quarantine every time a student in one of their classes tests positive. Last semester, the need to quarantine large numbers of teachers repeatedly forced an abrupt shift back to distance learning for the high school and middle school.

The shifts back and forth strained parents, teachers and students, which was reflected in generally poor student achievement scores in recent school benchmark testing as well as reports of depression, anxiety and isolation for many students.

COVID cases continue to crop up among students and faculty. As of Feb. 12, the district knew of 39 positive tests among students and 15 among staff members — plus two cases of COVID-like symptoms. That resulted in about 130 close contacts. All four campuses had positive cases and 187 students and staff have been asked to quarantine to avoid further spread of the virus. Before the staff got vaccinated, that many cases would have forced a return to distance learning for lack of enough substitute teachers.

Moreover, the district remains in the COVID-19 red zone, according to the state’s school benchmarks for Payson. Nonetheless, the spread of the virus has declined significantly from its January peak.

In the past two weeks, Gila County’s hospitalization rate has dropped 35% and the percentage of positive tests has dropped 15%. The county’s still reporting an average of 18 new cases a day, but that’s down 59% from two weeks ago.

An estimated 11% of residents have been infected since the pandemic began, resulting in 6,288 cases. Roughly 14% have now been vaccinated — which should mean about a quarter of the county’s residents are now protected against the virus.

New, more clear-cut federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines suggest that even when the virus is widespread in the community, schools can generally operate safely if they enforce universal mask wearing and take other precautions that include ensuring ample ventilation in the classroom and avoiding large-group activities that bring a lot of students and faculty together. Those guidelines don’t require widespread vaccination of teachers — so Payson’s actually way ahead of many schools, with 75% of the staff protected from infection.

Payson High School Student Achievement Teacher Brian Young said, “It’s really exciting to see students back in class. The energy level is higher than it’s ever been. The pace of the day is so much better.”

The stretches of distance learning have been hard on students and teachers alike. Students have suffered learning setbacks, with perhaps a third frequently missing online sessions and many not turning in work. Recent release of benchmark test scores underscores the problems many students have faced — with nearly two-thirds of students ranked as “low proficiency.”

National studies show a big increase in depression, anxiety and isolation for students denied contact with teachers and friends, with students sometimes stuck alone at home when parents are working facing additional problems. Some studies suggest students may actually face a lower risk of infection in school than when learning from home.

Losing that daily contact with students has also plagued teachers.

“Teachers are excited to see students again, as opposed to looking at a computer screen,” said Young. “It’s going well. It’s really exciting. This is the reason you become a teacher. It’s been a really good week here.”

After months of dealing with the pandemic, experts have gained confidence in how districts can open schools safely — even without vaccinating teachers and even when the virus remains widespread in the community. Although cases regularly crop up on campus, the evidence so far shows that schools can avoid spread of the virus on campus or back out into the community. The overwhelming majority of cases detected on campus are connected to family and community contacts, rather than on-campus contacts. The big exception would be group activities without adequate masking and protection, including things like sports tournaments.

The CDC has issued new recommendations for opening schools safely based on a growing body of research that shows very limited spread of the virus in schools. Roughly half of the nation’s children remain locked into distance learning, despite growing evidence of the emotional and academic toll the months of online classes and isolation have taken on students.

Both the Trump administration and the Biden administration have emphasized the need to return to in-person classes as soon as possible. The new guidelines have simply become more clear cut, based on a growing body of evidence on how schools have fared in the past year.

The latest guidelines say that precautions like universal mask wearing can allow K-8 schools to operate safely even if teachers aren’t vaccinated and the virus remains widespread in the community.

The guideline defines “widespread” presence of the virus as a positive test rate of 10% and an infection rate of less than 100 cases per 100,000 in the past seven days.

Gila County in the past week has reported that 11% of tests have come back positive and an infection rate of about 34 new cases per 100,000 residents, which comes in below the CDC threshold. Above that level, the recommendations call for surveillance testing and other extra precautions for middle school and high school, but not necessarily for K-8 schools.

The CDC recommendations for safe operation of schools include, universal mask wearing, physical distancing and adequate ventilation in classrooms. Vaccination of faculty and staff isn’t necessary, but adds a big measure of protection.

The guidelines are more cautious for high schools. Studies show that younger children are slow to get infected or spread the virus and much less likely to develop serious symptoms. Teenagers appear nearly as likely as adults to get infected, but far less likely than older adults to get seriously ill.

Because high school students have six classes a day and mingle far more students and staff each day, studies have shown high schools are much more likely to develop clusters of cases. The CDC guidelines recommend scheduling changes to avoid the mixing of high school students or hybrid classes to reduce student contacts in high school when the virus is widespread in the community, but don’t stress the need for such measures in K-8 schools, even when the virus is widespread in the community.

Outside experts have generally hailed the more clear-cut guidelines, but questioned the continued emphasis on the time-consuming effort to disinfect surfaces. Repeated studies have shown that the airborne COVID virus doesn’t live long on surfaces or spread easily by that route. Those studies suggest the huge effort to disinfect surfaces hasn’t had much impact on the rate of spread. However, putting more effort into making sure classrooms are well ventilated and frequently changing filters on the air handlers would likely have a much bigger impact.

The broadest agreement has centered on the need for strictly enforced, universal mask wearing — even after many teachers are vaccinated. Clinical studies show that vaccinations reduce the chance someone will test positive, develop symptoms or suffer serious illness from the virus. But experts aren’t certain someone who has been vaccinated and doesn’t have enough virus in their system to test positive can’t still pass the virus along to others. Tests to answer that question are underway.

So in the meantime, the experts recommend even people who have gotten vaccinated wear masks in group settings.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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