Schools

According to new benchmark data from the state, it’s safe for Santa Cruz County schools like Challenger Elementary in Nogales to resume in-person instruction.

Santa Cruz County on Thursday achieved the state-suggested COVID-19 benchmarks for schools to safely return to in-person instruction. But don’t expect local schools to immediately throw open their doors in response.

The Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District is still eyeing an October start date for hybrid in-person/remote learning. Patagonia Schools are cautiously considering starting on-site instruction by the end of the month. And the Nogales Unified School District, which had yet to announce a target date for a return, is also proceeding with deliberation.

“I will be making a recommendation providing a starting date to the board this coming Monday,” NUSD Superintendent Fernando Parra said in an email sent Wednesday evening, adding that he would share that recommendation with the NUSD community by the end of this week.

As for beginning a hybrid learning model, Parra said: “We will still be holding back a little longer … to gauge the situation as these benchmarks will not be taking into consideration this past holiday weekend and testing has been declining.”

Indeed, the benchmark data released by the state on Thursday takes into account COVID-related statistics only through Aug. 29. Those statistics show Santa Cruz County below the threshold numbers of new cases per 100,000 residents and hospital visits for COVID-like illness, as well as the percent of tests returning positive results during the previous two weeks.

The county had previously met the first two marks, but failed to show a test positivity rate less than 7 percent, as recommended by the state. But Thursday’s report showed a local positivity rate of 4.3 percent for the week of Aug. 23-29, which followed a rate of 3.9 percent (adjusted down from an earlier-reported figure of 4.2 percent) during the week of Aug. 16-22.

Speaking about the pending release of this week’s benchmarks during a school board meeting on Tuesday, SCVUSD Superintendent David Verdugo said: “We will continue, whether we meet them or not, with our plan to open Oct. 12 – at least in the interim. Hopefully we will have met them by Oct. 12.”

Patagonia schools were planning a virtual open house on Thursday evening, and Superintendent Kenny Hayes told the NI on Wednesday that if the county’s school benchmarks were met, he would make an announcement at the open house, “and we will be opening for our staggered schedule on the 28th – that’s if we continue to meet the benchmarks on the 17th and also the 24th.”

Under the staggered schedule, he explained, freshman and sophomores will be on the high school campus one day and juniors and seniors the other. At the middle school level, sixth- and seventh-grade students will alternate on-campus days with eighth-graders.

“We’re not going to stagger with our elementary because our class sizes are small enough that we can properly socially distance without staggering them, and they won’t change classrooms,” Hayes said.

The state benchmarks for schools, unlike those for businesses, are recommendations rather than requirements, and the ultimate decision on whether and when to return to in-person instruction is up to the schools themselves.

One public school district in Santa Cruz County had already resumed on-campus classes prior to the release of Thursday’s benchmark data. The Sonoita Elementary School District, which serves communities where a minimal number of COVID-19 cases have been confirmed, began in-person instruction at its one school, the K-8 Elgin School, on Aug. 31.

The Santa Cruz Elementary District, which operates the Little Red K-8 School east of Nogales city limits, had previously approved a re-opening plan that called for hybrid in-person/distance learning to begin Monday, Sept. 14. However, the school notified parents in late August that on-campus classes would not begin on that date after all.

The school superintendent did not immediately return messages Thursday seeking an update on the plans at Little Red.

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