A teacher at Rio Rico High School meets his class remotely on the first day of school in August 2020. RRHS and other schools in the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District were scheduled to resume in-person instruction as part of a hybrid learning model on Feb. 18, but that date has now been pushed back to March 15.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate in Santa Cruz County dropped sharply during the week of Jan. 24-31, falling nearly 10 percentage points to 13.3 percent, according to data published Thursday by the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Still, the figure, which is meant to help school districts make decisions about whether to hold in-person classes, kept Santa Cruz County in the “substantial transmission” category in terms of the percentage of people who test positive for an active COVID-19 infection.

Santa Cruz County was also in the “substantial” transmission category in terms of new cases per 100,000 residents, at 181. That number also fell dramatically from the 431 cases per 100,000 number of the previous week. Even so, the threshold to reach “moderate” transmission is 100 cases per 100,000 and the cutoff for “minimal” transmission is 10 cases or fewer per 100,000 residents.

Despite the positive trends, ADHS was still recommending virtual learning in Santa Cruz County as of Thursday.

The Santa Cruz County Unified School District had been planning a return to hybrid in-person/distance learning for next Thursday, Feb. 18. Speaking during a school board meeting on Tuesday, Superintendent David Verdugo said the plan was still in place, though administrators planned to make a final decision upon consultation with health authorities.

Then on Thursday, he announced that the return to hybrid learning had been pushed back to March 15 – the Monday following spring vacation.

“The decision was made to give staff time to receive both doses of the vaccination, and maintain continuity of instruction for our teachers and students,” Verdugo said in a statement provided by the district.

The Nogales Unified School District had previously targeted March 15 for its return to hybrid instruction.

In another sign that the pandemic is abating in Santa Cruz County, data posted Thursday by the County Health Services Department showed 7,518 confirmed COVID-19 infections in the community since the start of the pandemic, an increase of 78 new cases during the previous week. That’s the lowest weekly number of new cases in three months.

Even so, the county confirmed eight more coronavirus-related deaths of local residents during the previous week, bringing the total number to 165.

There were also seven more hospitalizations confirmed in the week leading up to Thursday, bringing the county’s total to 521 since the start of the pandemic.

Dr. Eladio Pereira, chief medical officer at the Mariposa Community Health Center, said he suspects that lower local infection numbers may be reflecting the impact of vaccination efforts. But he said it may take longer to see the impact in hospitalization and death statistics as people continue to battle months-long infections.

“I’m hoping that we can see, soon, a decrease in hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.

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