Payson students next year can still get to work on a university degree.

Providing the state and the district ever figure out how to resume school.

The Payson school board recently approved a contract for the upcoming school year to team up with Eastern Arizona College-Payson to offer a rich array of college courses for high school students — most of them offered on the high school campus.

The innovative program mostly funded by the MHA Foundation allows a diligent Payson High School student to graduate with a community college degree as well as a high school diploma.

The Aspire Arizona Foundation pays the tuition and EAC-Payson provides the course and the teacher — often high school teachers with a master’s degree. The MHA Foundation set up Aspire Arizona, which now raises money in the community to pay for up to three classes per student per semester.

The pandemic has cast its shadow over the program — as it has with all the district’s plans. The state has postponed the start of in-person classes until Aug. 17 faced with a dramatic rise in documented COVID-19 infections. Early this week, total statewide cases topped 100,000, with more than 3,000 new cases reported each day.

The state has suffered at least 1,800 deaths and the hospitals are roughly 90% full.

Payson administrators are working feverishly now to settle on a plan for reopening schools in August. So far, the district has focused on resuming in-person classes, with frequent checks for symptoms, comprehensive cleanings and kids spaced out as much as possible in class, recess and other activities.

The district’s also planning to issue each of the roughly 2,400 students his or her own Chromebook, which could make it easier for students to do classwork and projects at home. It’s unclear how many of the dual-enrollment classes might include an online option.

The district’s still grappling with how to adjust schedules and blend at-home work to protect both students and teachers from the rising risk of infection.

Gila County as of Monday had 349 reported cases and six deaths. That’s still one of the lowest infection and death rates in the state — less than half the statewide average. Gila County also has about half as many tests coming back positive as the rest of the state, another sign of a comparatively low infection rate here.

School officials say they expect to update their plan for opening next month in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, the board has approved another one-year extension of the dual-enrollment college program that can save a Payson family $4,000 a year in tuition costs alone. Mesa Community College estimates it costs $32,000 to get a degree for a full-time student not living at home, when you include all the expenses.

The dual-enrollment program includes a bounty of college classes, although the actual classes offered will depend on how many students sign up. The contract calls for classes no smaller than six students and no larger than 35.

Last year, Payson High School student earned 1,200 college credits through the program. This year the hoped-for offerings include biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, English literature, core writing classes, criminology, history and even a publications class intended to produce things like a school newspaper or creative writing magazine.

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