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Health Department: Reopening Tucson schools for traditional learning unsafe
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Health Department: Reopening Tucson schools for traditional learning unsafe

A bicyclist makes her concerns known July 15 in Tucson. The Pima County Health Department recommended Tuesday that schools delay the start of in-person instruction.

The Pima County Health Department says it’s unsafe to reopen schools for traditional face-to-face learning as the coronavirus continue s to heavily impact the Tucson community.

The guidance to Tucson-area schools, released Tuesday, says the earliest traditional instruction could be anticipated to resume is after Labor Day.

Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia used public health data to form their recommendation — which schools are not required to follow.

A memo from Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry outlined the reasoning for delaying in-person traditional instruction:

  • Local, daily COVID-19 infections are at the highest amounts since the pandemic began. Pima County’s total monthly infections have gone from 153 for March to more than 6,700 confirmed cases thus far for the month of July alone.
  • Coronavirus transmission rates are above 11%. The World Health Organization recommends rates should be below 5% before reopening.
  • Masks were only recently mandated, and it will take six weeks to see if the mitigation strategy is working.
  • COVID-19 hospitalizations are at record levels. Local hospitals have nearly exceeded their ICU bed capacity, transferring some critical patients to hospitals around the state.
  • Widespread testing is just now becoming available, and timely test results to allow for contact tracing do not exist in Pima County.

Though the guidance does not advise resuming traditional face-to-face learning, it does recommend the opening of school facilities for at-risk youth on a limited basis as envisioned in Gov. Doug Ducey’s latest executive order.

Such sites would provide adult supervision during school hours for children who would be completing remote learning assignments.

While Ducey’s executive order directs schools to make a special effort to accommodate vulnerable students at those sites starting Aug. 17, it also says schools cannot refuse any student.

The Pima County Health Department’s recommendation does not change that requirement, says Ducey’s spokesman Patrick Ptak.

Tucson’s largest school district, TUSD, says it plans to seek a waiver from the state to delay offering that on-site supervision beyond Aug. 17.

Ducey’s executive order says school districts can apply for such an exemption through the Arizona Department of Education if a county health department in conjunction with the state health department advise closing.

Tucson Unified Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo will request to offer in-person services only to the most vulnerable, which may include students who use wheelchairs or need assistance with basic self-care.

Although schools are still required to offer a place for students to go, the county recommendation is meaningful because it gets the message out to the community that campuses are not currently considered safe to return to traditional instruction, says Pima County Schools Superintendent Dustin Williams.

“Everything was on the shoulders of the schools, trying to be health experts,” he said. “And the reality is now the Health Department is coming out and saying, ‘These numbers are not good. As a matter of fact, they’re so bad, we don’t recommend starting in person.’ This isn’t about politics. This is about ICU beds, infection rates and all the stuff that we need to really be talking about.”

TUSD’s plan already included a completely online learning option, regardless of whether a student is in a classroom or at home.

But not all Tucson-area school districts had a plan that focused on remote learning.

Catalina Foothills quickly shifted its back-to-school plan after the Health Department’s recommendation came out from one that focused on in-person instruction to a completely remote model. Superintendent Mary Kamerzell sent a letter Tuesday afternoon to families and staff workers saying the district would start the school year 100% remotely.

While the district is planning to switch to a remote learning model, it is working on a plan that provides on-site care and will follow the governor’s executive order, said district spokeswoman Julie Farbarik.

Like other local districts, Vail has been working on a learning model that offered both online and in-person learning options. It’s too soon to know if the county’s recommendation will change the plan, says spokeswoman Darcy Mentone.

The metrics don’t change anything in Amphitheater Schools District’s plan, which already delayed in-person learning until after Labor Day. The district is still working on a plan for how to deal with the requirement to offer on-site supervision.

On the athletics front, Pima County advised that school interscholastic sports and extracurricular activities planned for the fall semester be delayed until spring 2021, with the exception of those activities that can be done safely while mask-wearing and physically-distancing.

The Arizona Department of Health Services will release health metrics by Aug. 7 that schools can refer to while deciding when to resume traditional in-person instruction, but the county health department has its own metrics, which the governor’s executive order says that schools should consider as well.

The Pima County Health Department’s COVID-19 website shows nine public health criteria being monitored to determine whether progress is being made in managing the pandemic and slowing community spread. Right now, six of those are in the red zone, which means the criteria has not been met.

The department says the upcoming metrics from the state coupled with the county’s metrics will be a valuable tool for schools.

The county is also in the process of opening additional testing sites, at the Ellie Town Flowing Wells Community Center and the Udall Center, to go along with the recently opened Kino Event Center, which will all provide free testing.

Pima County is working on getting faster test results and hopes to have blocks of time for district personnel to be tested on Thursdays and Fridays, with results coming back on Mondays, so those who test negative can immediately return to work.

The local Health Department also has a procedure for follow-up testing and contact tracing to limit community spread in a school, the memo says.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223. On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara

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  • Updated

The guidelines take into consideration the percentage of residents who test positive, the percentage of people showing up at hospitals with coronavirus symptoms and the rate of infection. However, nothing in the standards is mandatory. Local school officials are free to reopen even while infections rates are high — or remain closed even past the point when the risk is minimal.

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