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COVID-19: Is Arizona a dangerous place to send kids back to school?
Area superintendents refute WalletHub study, remain confident they can fully reopen schools safely in October

Class is in session for Chino Valley High School science teacher John Vreyens as students are spaced out inside the classroom to adhere to social-distancing guidelines during Chino Valley Unified Schools District’s first day of hybrid instruction on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Aaron Valdez/Courier, file)

Class is in session for Chino Valley High School science teacher John Vreyens as students are spaced out inside the classroom to adhere to social-distancing guidelines during Chino Valley Unified Schools District’s first day of hybrid instruction on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020. (Aaron Valdez/Courier, file)

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more on the WalletHub report and to read about what state schools' Superintendent Kathy Hoffman had to say, click here.

Despite a Washington, D.C.-based personal finance company’s Monday release of a study showing the dangers of reopening Arizona’s schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, school district administrators in the Quad Cities say they can fully reopen their schools safely in late October.

The company, WalletHub, determined which U.S. states are the safest for reopening their schools by comparing the 50 states across 15 key metrics.

WalletHub’s dataset included factors such as the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 children, the average public-school class size, and the ratio of students to school nurses.

The company ranked Arizona 47th out of the 50 states with a total score of 45.71. In addition, WalletHub rated the Grand Canyon State 49th out of 50 regarding its risk of COVID-19 infections and 32nd out of 50 in health and financial infrastructure.

However, Yavapai County has fared better than most of Arizona’s 14 other counties in pulling down COVID-19 cases, say Prescott, Humboldt and Chino Valley unified school districts’ superintendents. This has given them more confidence in fully reopening their schools on Oct. 19, the day after fall break.

PRESCOTT USD

Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) Superintendent Joe Howard said PUSD is following its governing board’s roadmap based on State Board of Education recommendations for a safe, full return to the schools.

“I trust the experts,” he added.

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Abia Judd Elementary Kindergarten teacher Megan Reynolds talks with new student Skyler Ammons on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020, in Prescott. (Nanci Hutson/Courier, file)

Howard said he is confident that Prescott schools can fully reopen in late October provided Yavapai County’s coronavirus cases drop from 20 cases per 100,000 people, which is about where they are now, to at or fewer than 10 per 100,000.

Yavapai County likely needs to remain at or below the 10 cases per 100,000 range for two straight weeks before the schools could fully reopen.

About 75% of PUSD’s students are currently in the district’s hybrid program, meaning each student is attending school on staggered days twice weekly. The other 25% of students have stayed with distance learning.

PUSD Health and Safety Coordinator Alexa Scholl said the biggest challenge has been reconfiguring the schools’ classrooms and overhauling day-to-day procedures. But for this plan to work, everyone at the schools has to be on board regarding wearing face coverings, washing their hands frequently and physical distancing, she added.

“We expect that we will have most people cooperating,” Scholl added. “Students have been doing great with hybrid; wearing masks and following protocols.”

Scholl said she is available to answer questions about PUSD’s full return to the schools via email at: alexa.scholl@prescottschools.com. You may also visit PUSD’s Health and Safety website at: sites.google.com/prescottschools.com/pusdhealthsafety.

HUMBOLDT USD

First-year Humboldt Unified School District (HUSD) Superintendent John Pothast said that barring any unforeseen community health metrics, he is confident that his schools in Prescott Valley and nearby Dewey-Humboldt will fully reopen Oct. 19.

Pothast added that Yavapai County health officials have provided some latitude to the schools regarding the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000. For example, if cases continue to flatten or trend downward after the schools reconvene, they can stay open.

“The benchmark can be met by a decline in cases or by meeting the benchmark by having fewer than 10 cases per 100,000,” Pothast said.

HUSD has conducted only remote learning for the entire first quarter. Pothast added that this was done to avoid being unpredictable during the process.

“We grew into a comfort with online learning,” he said. “Our teachers rose to the challenge, and we learned a lot from the spring. … But there is no substitute for having kids in the classrooms.”

When students return to their schools in late October, they must wear masks, wash their hands frequently and socially distance as much as possible. Like PUSD, HUSD invested heavily in Plexiglass barriers in many classrooms, offices and cafeterias.

“We will also have significant cleaning operations in place, both during the school day and after school,” Pothast said.

CHINO VALLEY USD

Chino Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) Superintendent John Scholl said CVUSD is currently following a hybrid model in which students are on campus every other day. However, some special needs students have been meeting every day in front of their teachers, Scholl added.

“I’m thankful we live in Yavapai County,” he said. “When you look at the numbers, we are the fourth-largest [Arizona] county by population, but the 10th-highest in cases of the 15 counties. A lot of smaller counties have more [coronavirus cases] than we do. We’re 14th [of the 15 counties] in cases per 100,000 [people].”

One-third of CVUSD students currently attend classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, another third of students meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, and the other third are still learning online.

As far as COVID-19 is concerned, CVUSD is following the health-and-safety benchmarks outlined by the Arizona Department of Health Services. When Health Services officials say Yavapai County is meeting the benchmarks, schools will be allowed to transition to all in-person classes.

For right now, like PUSD and HUSD, CVUSD plans to transition fully to in-person classes on Oct. 19, the day after fall break. All students and staff would be required to wear masks, socially distance, and wash their hands regularly. Common-touch areas would be sanitized often, too, Scholl said.

Scholl added that Arizona is ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in lowest overall childhood infection with the coronavirus.

“Some things are positive overall as the state goes,” he said. “… Kids learn better and teachers teach better when they are in Chino Valley schools. We just need to do it safely.”

To read the WalletHub study, visit: wallethub.com/edu/safest-states-for-schools-to-reopen/79230/.

Doug Cook is a reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email him at dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.

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