200311-coverstory-coronavirus1

Dr. Cara Christ, Director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, speaks alongside Arizona Governor Doug Ducey in a press conference addressing the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak last week.

Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert welcomed the state's decision to close all Arizona schools until March 27, saying it will give health care officials a better sense of just how many cases of COVID-19 there are.

"I think this is giving us an opportunity to step back and decide what is best going forward without some of the pressure," Rickert said.

One of Rickert's employees is the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in Graham County. It's believed she could have exposed as many as 166 fifth and sixth graders to the virus. The district closed on March 12,  one day earlier than expected for spring break.

Those experiencing symptoms of the virus were scheduled to be tested by health department officials on Monday and Tuesday or this coming Friday.

Governor Doug Ducey and Superintendent Kathy Hoffman announced their decision Sunday afternoon saying that "while this measure will not stop the spread of COVID-19, it will bring certainty and consistency in schools across Arizona.”

The decision comes on the heels of the Arizona Education Association sending a letter to the governor pleading with him to close the schools "until education leaders and state policymakers can present a detailed plan of support that assures students will be returning to safe classrooms and healthy school sites."

"Education Week is reporting that on Sunday more than 12 governors called for school closures," Rickert said. "Currently, more than 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have closed schools for at least two or three weeks. In New York state schools have been ordered to be closed until April 20th."

The decision left school districts everywhere scrambling on how to best help families. (See related story.)

Health officials across the nation have been preaching the idea of "social distancing," over the past several days.

The New York Times reported that The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has predicted that – in the worse case scenario – the U.S. could experience 160 million to 214 million infections, 2.4 million to 21 million hospitalizations and 200,000 to 1.7 million deaths in the country.

On Sunday, Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he doesn't think the worst case scenario will play out because the U.S. is starting to take steps to spread the novel coronavirus such as social distancing.

While children who get COVID-19 tend to only experience mild symptoms, health authorities don't yet know how infectious children under age 20 may be, Dr. Deborah Birx, White House coronavirus response coordinator, said in a national press briefing Saturday.

"Are they a group that is potentially asymptomatic and spreading the virus?" Birx asked, as she discussed the need to protect the most vulnerable to the virus -- the elderly or anyone with an underlying chronic disease such as diabetes.

Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas reiterated that message Sunday.

"While information so far suggests that most COVID-19 illness is mild, serious illness could occur, he said. "Older people and people with certain underlying health conditions like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, for example, seem to be at greater risk of serious illness."

In addition to not attending mass gatherings, people should keep approximately six feet away from others, he said.

"With COVID-19, the goal of social distancing is to slow down the outbreak to reduce the chance of infection among high-risk populations, reducing the burden on health care systems and workers," Douglas said.

 As for Graham County, Douglas said the Arizona State Lab has informed him of five negative results and the one positive.

"In addition, there are over 30 tests waiting on results, mostly from commercial labs," Douglas said. "Keep in mind there will be additional tests given at our Pima clinics this week."

As the outbreak continues to expand and as testing capacity in the U.S. increases, the Graham County Department of Health Services expects more cases to be detected locally, Douglas warned.

"In an attempt to avoid high volumes of visits from people who are healthy, the public is encouraged to avoid going to hospitals and clinics if symptoms are not present," he said.

 "This is a rapidly evolving situation," Douglas added. "The Graham County Department of Health Services will continue to update the public as circumstances warrant."

Rickert said he is hoping the district's summer food program will be in place to help the many children who qualify for free and reduced lunch during the week of March 23-March 27. The district could possibly extend that program, if needed, he said.

As for childcare, Rickert pointed out that during the Red for Ed teachers strike, 75 percent of children stayed home in his district although they'd been given the option of coming to school. At that time, extended families really stepped up, he said.

He's hopeful extended families and businesses will help out again this time, however, because of the "social distancing" he admitted it will be a bit "trickier."

Some parents are pleased by the state's decision.

"I feel like it was the best call to keep the spread of the virus lower. It is hard for parents working to take time off and stay home, but I'd rather keep from spreading the virus further," said Willcox resident Amanda Berger.

Tanya McNeil, who has three kids in Safford schools and two in Pima schools, agreed.

"I think the closure was inevitable and a wise decision," McNeil said. "Even though it may be an inconvenience, it's much more important to slow the spread of the virus. We'll work on making structured plans for daily learning and family activities to keep us all intellectually stimulated and keep us from going stir crazy."

Safford resident Dusti Brantner had this to say, "I am so relieved he finally did it. Our 8-year-old daughter has asthma. When she gets even a little cold it makes breathing difficult. I've been stressed over her getting this. I'm OK with the kids going a week longer to prevent the spread of this virus to kids who already have health problems."

According to a news release, Ducey and  Hoffman will work with education officials and public health officials to reassess the need for the school closures and provide further guidance through March 27, 2020.

“As more schools announce closures and education administrators express staff shortages within their schools, now is the time to act. A statewide closure is the right thing to do. While this measure will not stop the spread of COVID-19, it will bring certainty and consistency in schools across Arizona.”

“The health and safety of all our students is our top priority, and we’ve worked hard to keep our school doors open — schools provide important services and many families rely on them for nutrition, access to health care and in order to do their own jobs,” Hoffman said. “I am in close contact with school superintendents, teachers, and parents and will continue working closely in partnership with schools to ensure that our families needs are met.”

The Governor’s Office and the Department of Education are working to implement directives to minimize the impact of the closure for Arizona kids during the closure, including access to healthcare and nutritional meals, and sanitary precautions schools can take upon reopening of schools. These directives include:

School administrators should make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home.

School administrators should develop a plan to continue breakfast and lunch services for Arizona students.

As demand rises on healthcare professionals and first responders, schools should expand child care programs currently available to ensure minimal disruption to these critical jobs as a result of the school closure.

When school resumes, school administrators should develop and implement precautions to ensure schools are a safe learning environment, including social distancing measures, regular intervals for administrators to wash and sanitize their hands, and guidance on how to properly and frequently sanitize election equipment and common surfaces.

Additionally, Ducey and Hoffman said they are committed to working together to minimize the impact of these closures. Including:

Working to ensure that any student who receives free and reduced-price meals will continue to be able to access those meals. The State is working with USDA to allow schools to begin summer food service operations and provide boxed meals as needed.

Educating parents on recommendations from public health officials for kids who are not at school to remain at home to the greatest extent possible. For families for whom that’s not an option, the State is coordinating with partners in the non-profit, faith-based and education communities to make available childcare options to families who need it.

Working together to make sure dedicated school employees don’t see any disruption to their pay, and consulting with school district and legislative partners to determine the extent of any potential makeup days.

Engaging federal partners to secure a waiver related to the statewide testing that provides flexibility for Arizona.

Engaging with our federal partners in the event that we need to secure a waiver related to statewide testing that provides flexibility and makes sense for Arizona.

Continued guidance will be provided to schools regularly by the Department of Education and at azed.gov. Please visit azhealth.gov/COVID19 for continued updates, facts and to learn about the measures you can take to remain healthy.

Reporter Brooke Curley contributed to this report.

Load comments