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Mon, March 08

Ducey rejects request for 2-week school ‘quarantine’
Williams Unified School District returns to in-person classes following winter break

Some smaller communities in northern Arizona are able to continue in-person schooling while managing fewer COVID-19 cases. (Chart/Wendy Howell, Data/Coconino County)

Some smaller communities in northern Arizona are able to continue in-person schooling while managing fewer COVID-19 cases. (Chart/Wendy Howell, Data/Coconino County)

ARIZONA — Despite the state’s surge of coronavirus cases, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey Jan. 2 rejected the state’s top education official’s call for him to order public schools to use only distance learning for the next two weeks unless they have waivers from health officials.

“Given the severity of our state’s situation and the virus’s trajectory after the holiday period,” schools need a “two-week quarantine period” for education leaders and local officials to use local health data “to decide the appropriate instruction model for their communities,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said in a Twitter thread.

Hoffman called for the two-week “quarantine period” for schools after the Department of Health Services on Saturday — the second day of the new year — reported nearly 8,900 additional known COVID-19 cases, giving the state a two-day pandemic high for new cases.

However, Ducey spokesman C.J. Karamargin said the governor “will not be considering this request or issuing this kind of mandate. This is a local decision. The online option is already available, and the governor has repeatedly made his preference clear: Kids have already lost out on a lot of learning, and he wants schools opened, safely.”

Coconino County

Following the winter break, Williams Unified School District returned to in-person class.

Williams joins Maine Consolidated School as two of a handful of schools in northern Arizona to hold in-person classes.

Grand Canyon Unified School District and Flagstaff Unified School District have been in remote learning since the beginning of the school year. Ash Fork Unified School District recently moved from in-person classes to a hybrid model.

In December, Coconino County Health and Human Services sent a letter to the Williams Unified School District Governing Board and Interim Superintendent Eric Evans recommending the district return to remote learning.

The county said because of the current level of spread of COVID-19 in the schools, mitigation efforts should be implemented and classes should be held virtually.

However, decisions to open and close are solely made by individual school districts and the governor.

“Based on the COVID-19 case numbers, CCHHS recommends that Williams Unified School District move to a virtual delivery model,” the county said in an email response to the Williams News Dec. 17. “Coconino County does not have the authority to dictate if schools are open, closed or in a hybrid model. The county provides data which leaders in schools use to make decisions. CCHHS provided this recommendation to the Governing Board, however, the Williams Unified School District governing board is tasked with making the decision on how to proceed.”

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Cases of COVID-19 have risen through the holiday season. Health experts believe numbers will stay high through January. (Chart/Coconino County)

Williams Governing Board Member Herman Nixon said governing board members and administrators evaluate the COVID positive cases within the community and the school daily.

“We’re on top of it constantly,” Nixon said. “This is an everyday thing. We look at whether it’s wide-spread, we look at whether it’s in clusters and we just do not believe at this time that it is time to close."

As of Jan. 4, WUSD has four staff members and two students with COVID-19. Those include one teacher at Williams High School, and three staff and two students at Williams Elementary-Middle School.

The city of Williams currently has 10 active COVID-19 cases. The number has steadily dropped from a high of 31 on Dec. 21.

Evans said the district’s current cases occurred over the holiday break and all of the individuals remain off campus and are in isolation at home.

The Arizona Department of Health Services defines an outbreak as two or more cases within a 14-day period who are not sharing a household nor are close contacts.

“Our cases are clustered into households,” Nixon said. “We haven’t been able to track one case that has come from the school, it's all from a parent or someone else outside the school.”

Nixon said the COVID-19 cases at WUSD have never increased substantially, as students and staff quarantine quickly when cases are identified.

“Our parents and students are doing what we asked them to do,” Nixon said. “When someone is sick they don’t come to school. We have been very lucky. The community has stepped up to do what we asked them to do.”

Nixon said the governing board follows the district’s COVID-19 plan, but said it is difficult to define at what point the district would stop in-person learning.

“Everyone wants to know when we would close down the school, but I don’t think there a clear answer on that,” Nixon said. “We follow our plan and we follow the governors order as well as we can — masks, hand washing, social distancing — we have put the money out there to make sure our students are safe.”

Nixon said the district continues to offer remote classes as an option for families.

“I won’t say there will never be a time we reconsider online learning, but I don’t think we are at that point right now,” he said.

Differences at the state level

Ducey, a Republican, and Hoffman, a Democrat, were aligned last spring when he ordered schools closed because of the coronavirus, but she voiced reservations during the fall as he urged schools to provide in-person learning.

Guidelines issued by Ducey’s administration during the fall let students remain in in-person classes beyond what earlier guidance would have recommended.

Many Arizona school districts in recent months have provided hybrid learning that includes both distanced and in-person instruction, while others either were already on remote learning or returning to it this month.

Many schools are set to resume classes after the winter holidays.

Hoffman noted that educators are among groups included in a large category planned to be eligible fairly early for vaccinations against COVID-19, and she said she will continue to advocate that school personnel are prioritized for the shots “so that our schools can safely provide in-person instruction as quickly as possible.””

“I look forward to a safe return of our teachers and students to the classroom. But now, we must do everything possible to help our health care workers and keep our teachers and students safe,” Hoffman added.

Added to the 10,060 COVID-19 cases that the state reported Jan. 1, the 8,883 cases reported Saturday produced a two-day total of 18,943. The state’s previous two-day high was 17,649 on Dec. 13-14.

Arizona had the second-worst COVID-19 diagnosis rate over the past week, behind only California. The diagnosis rate is calculating by dividing the state’s population by the number of new cases over the past week.

Hospital occupancy has surged during December due to the outbreak, and hospitals statewide remain nearly full, with only seven percent of all inpatient beds available and not in use, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.

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