Two Santa Cruz County school districts will send students back home next week, after benchmark data released by the Arizona Department of Health Services on Thursday morning showed an uptick in COVID-19 cases among county residents.
Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District will halt its hybrid learning program beginning on Monday, District Superintendent David Verdugo said on Thursday.
“We knew that (the benchmark measures) were going to increase, we just didn’t know that it was going to increase as much as it did. And then there’s an anticipation that it will increase again next week,” he said.
Kathy Romero, superintendent of the Santa Cruz Elementary District, which operates the Little Red K-8 school, said her students will also return to remote-only learning starting on Nov. 16.
“We feel it is necessary to be proactive,” Romero said on Thursday. The school reopened for hybrid learning just two weeks ago, on Nov. 2, but Romero said that some community members had concerns from the start.
“I’m thinking with this, they’re feeling a little bit more confident that they will be able to keep their families safe,” she added. Romero said the school will stick to remote learning until further notice.
According to a document distributed by the district on Thursday, SCVUSD schools will stay remote through the end of the calendar year and the into the first week of the third quarter of the academic year, from Jan. 4-8. On Jan. 11, “if benchmarks and data are met,” students will return to classrooms.
In the meantime, Rio Rico High School’s athletic programs, which Verdugo said follow a separate set of benchmarks, will continue. He also said the district will continue offering on-site services to a smaller group of students.
The data released by ADHS on Thursday morning showed 162 new COVID-19 cases in Santa Cruz County per 100,000 residents for the seven days from Oct. 25-31, the most recent week for which data was available. That was above the threshold of 100 cases per 100,000 to reach the state’s category of “substantial transmission.”
The positive test rate in Santa Cruz County also rose to 12.5 percent. That’s above the 10 percent threshold for substantial transmission, a threshold that was raised from 7 percent in October.
The third state benchmark for schools, measured on a regional rather than county-level basis, takes into account the percentage of hospital visits that were for COVID-like illness. That number was 2.9 percent in the southeast Arizona region, an increase from the previous week but still low enough to be considered “minimal” according to state guidelines.
The ultimate choice of whether to keep students in classrooms has always been up to individual school districts, but many local school administrators have said they use the state’s guidelines in making their decisions.
Despite two benchmarks in the “substantial transmission” category on Thursday, the recommendation listed on the state website for Santa Cruz County was for schools to offer hybrid learning.
Some classrooms still open
With the closures of SCVUSD schools and Little Red, the majority of public schools around the county are now closed for in-person or hybrid learning.
The county’s largest school district, Nogales Unified, announced the end of its own hybrid learning program on Oct. 22, meaning students were only back on campus for one week. NUSD Superintendent Fernando Parra said there had been “an increase in the number of exposures and reported cases from individual teachers, staff, families and students,” at the time of the announcement.
And Patagonia Union High School hasn’t had students in classrooms since learning of two COVID-19 cases among students on Oct. 13 and Oct. 14. But Patagonia Unified School District Superintendent Kenny Hayes said on Thursday that the district’s elementary school is remaining on an in-person learning plan and middle school students continue with a hybrid model.
“We’re keeping the county benchmarks in mind. If it keeps getting worse and worse we will, eventually, probably have to send those kids home to virtual,” Hayes said. “But we’re keeping a closer eye on the zip code numbers since most of our kids come from this (85624) zip code.” (On Thursday, state data showed a total of 11 cases in the 85624 area.)
The Elgin School, which, like the Patagonia schools, serves a more rural community in the eastern part of the county, where a relatively small number of cases have been reported, was also planning to remain open.
Mary Faley, the superintendent of the Sonoita Elementary School District, which operates the K-8 Elgin School, said in an email on Thursday that the school was planning to stick with the two options it's currently offering families: in-person learning five days per week, or distance learning. She said about 10 percent of the district’s students had opted for distance learning.
The decision to halt hybrid learning at SCVUSD came weeks after one district official expressed concerns about keeping classrooms open. At a meeting on Oct. 27, SCVUSD governing board member Rene Ramirez, who’s also a teacher in Nogales, said SCVUSD’s decision to stick with hybrid learning as case numbers rose was “dangerous.”
But Verdugo and other board members pushed back at the Oct. 27 meeting, insisting the district’s precautions were sufficient and that most families were satisfied with hybrid learning and happy to have their kids coming to school.
Verdugo pointed out that 65 percent of SCVUSD students opted to participate in the district’s hybrid program, compared to just under half of NUSD students.
In another board meeting this Tuesday, Ramirez sounded a more conciliatory tone, but a representative from a teachers’ union raised concerns about what she called a lack of transparency on the part of the district when it came to telling teachers and staff about potential exposure to COVID-19.
“We may not all agree on whether we should stay open or return to remote learning, but we can all agree that we are not receiving enough information to make the decisions that are best for us and our loved ones,” said Jennifer Huerta, a teacher at Coatimundi Middle School and the vice president of the Santa Cruz Valley Education Association, a group that represents teachers.
On Thursday, Verdugo downplayed the complaints brought before the board and insisted that the district follows “CDC and... FERPA and HIPAA guidelines” for disclosing information about cases and possible exposures. He said there hadn’t been any COVID-19 outbreak within the school district.
Unlike NUSD and Patagonia, SCVUSD hasn’t publicly disclosed information about positive tests among community members.
Did the comments at the board meetings have an impact on the choice to move back to remote learning?
“We always listen to our teachers, staff and board,” Verdugo said. “But as far as the decision, no it didn’t have any bearing on the decision.”