Lily Altavena | Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News Talk #arizona
A growing number of school districts in Maricopa County are in the “red zone” for COVID-19.
That means county health officials have designated COVID-19 risk as “substantial” in those areas, including in one of the first districts in the state to open for in-person learning.
In Queen Creek Unified’s case, the county’s COVID-19 dashboard recommends the district “prepare for virtual” learning if the numbers continue to rise.
Queen Creek isn’t alone: Neighboring districts including Higley and Gilbert are also in the red. On the west side of the metro area, Agua Fria Union High School District and Tolleson Union High School District have veered into red territory.
Streaks of red dot the COVID-19 map of metro Phoenix, with clusters in the East Valley, the southwest Valley and a few spots in central Phoenix.
The rising numbers have led to difficult decisions for school leaders. Some are contemplating the decision to return to virtual school as cases in the state spike.
And cases among school-aged children are increasing in Arizona. According to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of cases in those under the age of 20 has more than doubled in a month, going from 750 new cases in that age group the week of Sept. 27 to 1,791 the week of Oct. 25.
In a video update posted by the Arizona Dept. of Health Services on Nov. 5, Director Cara Christ urged Arizonans to continue taking precautions like wearing a mask and avoiding large gatherings.
“The increase this fall was expected, with more Arizonans returning to school and reopening of many businesses,” she said.
Schools contemplate a return to virtual
Because of rising COVID-19 cases, Campo Verde High School in Gilbert will return to a hybrid school model, where students are on-campus two days a week. The school had in-person school five days a week.
Board members in the Madison Elementary School District will debate a return to virtual school in a meeting Nov. 10. Mesa High recently returned to a hybrid model because of rising cases in the school and community.
Queen Creek Unified officials have not publicly discussed such a return to virtual school or the switch to a hybrid model. Spokesperson Stephanie Ingersoll did not answer a question about how the district was approaching a rise in cases. She wrote, however, that the county showed just one of three state health benchmarks — cases per 100,000 — as in the red.
“We are contacting county health to understand why the map shows red,” she said.
County Spokesperson Lisa Kaye wrote that Queen Creek is shaded red because at least one benchmark shows substantial spread in the community for two consecutive weeks.
“Multiple school districts and other areas on the map are in red this week due to having one or more benchmarks in Substantial spread for 2 consecutive weeks,” she wrote.
But some are calling for more support from state leaders.
School reopening and closing guidelines from the state are not mandated. Ultimately, schools make the final decision to close amid a spike in cases. Many districts have stopped following the guidelines in favor of fully reopening when guidelines dictate hybrid school or, on the other side, in favor of staying closed.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said schools need directed funding for ventilation improvements and more direction around how to structure the school day.
“We have to have the resources from the state government into our districts,” he said. “So districts can support their creative models for keeping students safe and keeping them educated.”
He also said teachers are struggling in classrooms where they’re asked to teach students in-person and students logging into class virtually at the same time.
“It’s two different ways of teaching,” he said.
Rising cases in children, schools
The rising cases among young people in Arizona coincides with a national trend: There were 61,000 new cases in children during the last week of October, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“I’m very concerned about the long-term harms that children may suffer, particularly Black and Hispanic children, who are suffering a higher number of infections,” Dr. Sally Goza, president of the AAP, said in a news release.
The Arizona Republic has tracked hundreds of cases in Arizona schools because the state and county are not publicly identifying sites of school outbreaks.
The number of cases The Republic tracked in October, 112, is nearly four times the number of cases tracked in September, 29. Maricopa County has reported 53 COVID-19 outbreaks in Valley schools. An outbreak constitutes two or more cases in a school, where those testing positive were considered close contacts specifically while on-campus.
Schools are sending students home if they’ve been exposed and asking parents to quarantine. However, enforcement of quarantines varies from school to school. School leaders are increasingly urging parents and students to act responsibly in and out of school.
In an Oct. 30 note to Scottsdale Unified families, Superintendent Scott Menzel asked families to celebrate Halloween responsibly.
“We are receiving many reports from parents about parties and large gatherings of students happening on the weekend,” he wrote.
And in a video shared Nov. 3 with Mountain View High School families in Mesa, Mayor John Giles made an appearance, asking the school’s 3,000 students to wear masks and continue practicing vigilance around COVID precautions. Otherwise, he said, the community may have to shut businesses and schools down once again.
“It really is just a few small decisions away from us tipping the other direction,” he said.