Shaken by word that six students from the same family have now tested positive for COVID-19, the Payson school board on Tuesday had a painful discussion about how the district can get students to wear masks consistently on campus and at school events.

So far the district has quarantined 350 students and 37 teachers and teachers’ aides. Another four or five other staff have also been affected. The quarantines involve three fifth-grade classes at Julia Randall Elementary, one first-grade class at Julia Randall Elementary and 14 classes at Rim Country Middle School.

No cases have been reported at the high school.

No one who was exposed has yet tested positive, said Superintendent Linda Gibson on Wednesday.

The quarantine involved so many students at the middle school that the district shifted the entire school back to distance learning, due to a lack of substitute teachers to cover the remaining classes.

Gibson said all six students are in the same family and there’s no sign so far that those children spread the virus to anyone on campus.

“This is not considered an outbreak on campus — if it were, this would be a much bigger deal,” said Gibson.

Studies show that children — especially those younger than 12 — are much less likely than adults or even teenagers to get infected, develop symptoms or spread the virus to other people.

Four of the students from the family who tested positive haven’t been on campus since Nov. 5. Two others were last on campus Nov. 13. It takes 5-14 days after exposure to develop symptoms.

The quarantines will continue until Nov. 30, since next week is the Thanksgiving break for the entire district.

The Gila County Health Department continues to notify close contacts of the six students who have tested positive.

The state has left school boards largely on their own in deciding when to offer in-person classes or return to distance learning when cases crop up.

“We are working closely with the Gila County Health Department,” said Gibson, which has “indicated that they will not ‘close’ a school unless they deem an outbreak has occurred at the site or district. This is not the case within PUSD. This is regardless of being ‘red’ (benchmarks) for any week or consecutive weeks ... We face a real struggle to provide the necessary support and supervision of students due to an increase in staff outage. If this continues, we will be forced to ‘close ourselves,’ by shifting to distance learning.

As of Oct. 25, the state’s school benchmark showed Gila County as a whole in the “red zone” for widespread presence of the virus. The county had 221 new cases per 100,000 population for the week. The recommended threshold for normal operations of schools was 10 per 100,000. The county had a 10% positive test rate, right on the threshold between “hybrid” online and in-person operations and closing down. The county still met the hospitalization benchmark for normal operations of schools, but that’s based on a three-county area. Gov. Doug Ducey recently changed the state recommendations so that a district need meet only one of the three benchmarks for normal operations.

Although few children get seriously ill when infected by COVID, many teachers are in high-risk groups based on age and other medical issues. So far in Arizona, at least three teachers have died from COVID-19, although it’s not clear they were infected on campus.

The barrage of news prompted soul searching during Tuesday’s hastily called school board study session.

Much of the discussion at that work session focused on wide inconsistencies in how many students wear masks during different parts of the day.

The district’s policy requires students and staff to wear a mask in any situation where they cannot stay six feet apart while indoors. However, most classrooms aren’t big enough to ensure six feet of separation, especially if students leave their seats during the class session. Teachers often move through the classroom, and some don’t wear masks.

The county health department guidelines require the district to quarantine any close contacts working within six feet of a person who tests positive for at least 15 minutes. The guidelines don’t take into effect whether those potential close contacts were wearing a mask.

Numerous studies show that well-fitted, double-layered cloth masks reduce infection rates by 70% to 80% — that’s almost as effective as a vaccine. The MHA Foundation has provided a supply of masks to the district to ensure every child has one.

So even if students and teachers wore masks all the time in the classroom, a single positive case contracted off campus could disrupt the entire middle school or high school, noted Gibson — especially given the critical shortage of substitute teachers.

However, board members said they see too many students and staff on campus who aren’t wearing masks.

“Is there any classroom where the students can be six feet apart? If not, then they should be wearing masks,” said board member Barbara Underwood.

“It depends on the number of kids who show up on a given day,” said Gibson. “I don’t know that we’re ever going to know that 100% of masks are going to be worn when people are not observing social distance. If it has to be masks worn 100%, we’re going to have to go to distance learning.”

Board president Joanne Conlin said, “It’s about the children learning. I thought in the beginning that was the plan — the staff had to agree for the protection of everybody to wear masks. That’s what I heard in the beginning. Public schools do it. They’re not allowed on campus unless they’re wearing masks.”

But board members said that when they visit the campus and go to events, they see far too many students and faculty members not wearing masks.

“Teachers need to be set up so they can stand up at the front of the class and not wear masks in order to teach,” said one administrator.

“Are we going to suspend kids for not wearing masks?” asked Gibson.

“You don’t have to suspend them,” said Underwood. “But when the teacher says, ‘I’m not wearing a mask’ then it says (to students) ‘you don’t have to.’”

“I have a struggle with disciplining kids for not wearing masks — are they being defiant or just not putting it on. And where do you draw that line?” said Gibson. “We don’t even know the reason that’s causing an outbreak. No one knows what’s driving the outbreak. If 50% of our parent population will be up in arms if we discipline kids for not wearing masks — how do we deal with that?”

“If you look at the letter we sent,” said Conlin, “it said they must wear a mask.”

Gibson replied, “It said we expect your child to wear a mask where they can’t practice social distancing. Just like right now in this meeting, we have social distance and we don’t have masks on. That’s how it’s written. It has to do with the ability to socially distance.”

Underwood said, “This is a wake-up call. This is why some people don’t send their kids to school. They have elders at home.”

“COVID is not going away for a while,” said Conlin. “We want our children to stay in school. How can we do that? If there’s another outbreak — even if it’s a couple of kids — we don’t have substitutes.”

That led into the even more thorny issue of the district’s critical lack of substitutes, part and parcel of the statewide shortage of teachers — compounded by the pandemic.

In the elementary school, a positive case generally means quarantining about 25 students and one teacher — since students don’t mix much during the day. At the middle school and high school, a single student who tests positive could expose five or six teachers during the day. That’s what happened at RCMS, prompting so many teachers to isolate themselves for the two-week incubation period of the infection that the district had to shift the whole school to distance learning.

Even this limited number of cases has sidelined 14 teachers and 23 parapros and other front-line, classroom staff.

“I’m just trying to figure it out,” said Conlin. “I know you guys are doing an amazing job. You and your team are awesome. This is extraordinarily difficult. We might have to do things a little different. If there’s a way to protect the kids and keep the exposure reduced in any way you can, that way the whole class doesn’t have to go or a whole school doesn’t have to go. We just have to assume that COVID is here.”

Gibson said, “I understand the passion is on both sides of where we are heading. What I ask and I think the leadership team needs is to trust that when a question comes up, we’re trying to address it as quickly as possible ”

The board ultimately asked the administration to research ways to recruit more substitutes — including perhaps increasing the roughly $100 per day.

Gibson later noted that the district has also spent hours trying to figure out whether a block schedule at the middle school and high school that sharply limited the number of different classes students attend daily — limiting the number of students or teachers exposed when a student tests positive.

So far, the leadership team has concluded such a radical shift in the middle school and high school schedule would be even more disruptive than simply returning to distance learning should a true outbreak take place on campus.

The board stopped short of requiring automatic mask wearing indoors.

Subsequently, the Payson Town Council reinstated its mask mandate, requiring the use of masks indoors whenever someone’s out in public or sharing an office with other people. The mandate does not apply to children younger than 12. It’s unclear if that rule would apply to high school classes.

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