BISBEE — In order to stay abreast with the ever changing COVID–19 landscape, county School Superintendent Jacqui Clay has been holding weekly meetings with administrative heads in the rural school districts.
Cochise Health and Social Services (CHSS) and county Emergency Services have been able to keep rural school districts informed so faculty, staff and students remain safe, said Clay.
“We were meeting once a week via video teleconference to collaborate, share ideas and receive updates from CHSS and Emergency Service team,” she continued. “We also communicate 24/7 through WhatsApp, because things change so quickly.”
In August, Dr. Edward Miller, CMO of the Copper Queen Community Hospital, joined the group and provided a frank, in–depth presentation of the virus.
“We expect COVID–19 to spread when kids come back to school. You need to plan for it. Stay informed,” he said to the many people in the online meeting. “I want to familiarize you with what we know at this time about children and COVID–19. And since we’re still learning about the virus, things may change over time.”
One thing which is important to stress to teachers and parents is that the schools are prepared and have the resources to establish safe settings for students, he said. All schools have masks, personal protection equipment, hand sanitizer and are taking the precautions to prevent spread through use of social distancing. In the classroom, teachers can also set up cohorts, small groups of children who learn together.
He emphasized children are not as susceptible to the virus. Those 10 and under who do test positive may have no symptoms or very mild symptoms and have likely contracted the virus from an adult in the household. Those over 10 are more likely to get the illness, but are not at high risk for severe cases.
He stated, “Adult staff and teachers are more likely to transmit the disease to each other. With in person instruction, there will be transmission in the schools and communities. Plan for it. You haven’t failed anyone. This was anticipated and planned for. We are reducing the risk, not eliminating it.”
What staff and faculty need to keep in mind is the fact that more children get sick from the various annual flu viruses which can be far more serious to children of all ages.
“From January 2020 through the end of May, the flu was 10 times more lethal to children than COVID-19,” Miller noted.
However, since the virus presents a severe challenge to at–risk children and adults with certain health conditions, he promoted the three “Ws” — wear a mask, wash your hands and watch your distance — as important precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
Martha Montano, Cochise Health and Social Services epidemiologist, reported part of the uptick in county positive cases was due to a testing sweep of the prisons, including the state prison north of Douglas. There, 95 inmates tested positive and were added to the county total on Aug. 3. Though the county remains on a downward trend, cases per 100,000 people did drop from substantial to moderate, that category is preventing the final benchmark from being positive, which would open up schools and businesses.
The group also discussed the problem with maintaining rights of privacy for those students who cannot wear masks. The schools require forms for students with developmental delays, physical restrictions or other at–risk conditions to be filled out by parents. Those forms will help teachers know which students may not be able to wear masks.
Miller and Kayla Percy, head of the Chiricahua Community Health Clinics, Inc., COVID-19 task force, said testing can be done anywhere through doctors’ offices. Though tests were backlogged a few weeks ago, that is not the case now.
If symptoms are showing, they said people should go to their health provider for tests or the emergency room if symptoms are serious.
“Test kits are not an issue now,” added Miller.
Percy noted, “Treat your masks like you would your underwear. Wash them daily. Don’t go commando.”
Gabe Lavine, director of Emergency Management, cautioned the educators saying, “Positive cases will continue to go up and down. But, it’s all on a downward trend.”
In a second meeting, Percy also went over the protections masks have in a school setting and noted the most efficient masks for students are cloth masks.
The N95 masks and surgeons’ masks should not be used so health care and emergency services have better access to them, she explained. However, for older people, the surgical masks are better than the cloth masks.
She pointed out the risk involved with using masks with breathing holes in them and plastic shields with no masks as they do not offer good protection from viral aerosols.
“Wearing cloth coverings made at home or purchased will protect you from spreading the disease, but doesn’t necessarily protect you from the spreading droplets,” she added. “Cloth face masks protect other people from you if you are infected. They are intended to trap the droplets released when talking, speaking loudly or from a cough or sneeze.”
One thing she emphasized is 40 percent of people can have no symptoms whatsoever, which can make control of the virus difficult.
“You should assume everyone has COVID–19 because it can be spread by people who have no symptoms. That’s why it’s important for everyone to wear masks if possible and use social distancing,” she continued.
Clay stated in an email after the meeting, “Although the state gives the recommendations through the benchmarks that we must review every Thursday, it is still considered a recommendation and, ultimately, it is the superintendent and school governing board’s decision. Our job is to support them and provide as much information as possible.”
With county cases dropping, Clay foresees a transition to hybrid classes or in-person learning happening in the next few months.
She feels confident in the professionals she has in the meetings and the information they provide help clarify many questions. She called it an “amazing, well-rounded county team — ready to support out educational leaders.”
She went on to say, “Dr. Miller is a part of our Educational Leader/Health Officials COVID team. He called me and offered his services and I asked him if he would join our team and attend our weekly meetings. I thought it would be good to give our leaders as much information as possible on the county level which would greatly add to our information base. Without hesitation, Dr. Miller became part of our team and attended our meetings.”
Dr. Jonathan Melk at Copper Queen Community Hospital and Benson Hospital CEO Julia Strange and Outreach Jason Zibart have supported county educators tremendously during COVID, she added.
SIERRA VISTA — As of Thursday, Cochise County is one of eight counties in the state to meet all three benchmarks for returning to limited in-person instruction, which gives Sierra Vista Unified School District Superintendent Eric Holmes the green light to start hybrid instruction on all school sites.
Holmes asked the governing board on Tuesday to have a special meeting on Sept. 8 to look at the current data and vote on either starting hybrid in-person instruction on Sept. 14 or delaying it once more — based on what the data is indicating. Holmes told the board if there were positive numbers on Tuesday they will look to move forward with their initial plan with the multiple options for instructions for parents.
Based on the plan, which was given to the Herald/Review in mid-August, when the county hits all green numbers, the three options are: full five-day a week in-person instruction, flexible learning module for elementary and middle school students and all online learning with the SchoolsPLP program.
Rachel Henry, a teacher at Buena High School, submitted a letter to be read during the call to the public expressing her concerns for full in-person return to Buena. She said she would hope the board and district administrators would consider a hybrid model to allow for less people in the building and social distancing.
Bisbee Unified School District, which had also been in an all-online format announced on Facebook, Thursday, they will begin a hybrid model based on Thursday’s data. Tombstone, Willcox and Benson all have had an in-person option for students and parents. The Herald/Review asked SVUSD what the plans are that will be brought to Tuesday’s meeting, but the information was not made available by press time.
Holmes had high praise for the teachers’ work and dedication during the three weeks of virtual learning. He did admit the process hasn’t been perfect but stated he was grateful for the time and effort teachers and parents are putting in.
“I’m seeing learning taking place across the board,” he said Tuesday. “Teachers are doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.”
While the discussion took place inside the district office, parents and athletes watched on their phones while holding signs hoping they would be cleared for practices to begin next week. Holmes did not approve the start of athletics at the meeting but waited until seeing the benchmark numbers Thursday morning to allow practices to start after Labor Day.
“The Sierra Vista Unified School District #68 will begin athletic practices for fall sports on Tuesday, September 8th,” SVUSD said in a statement Thursday morning. “Coaches will be in contact with all athletes with more details regarding practice times and locations. All practices will strictly follow all AIA protocols as well as our own district protocols.”
The school’s guidelines and COVID-19 waiver can be found on the Buena High School athletics website. Athletes or parents who have questions should contact Athletic Director Greg Duce at Greg.Duce@svps.k12.az.us.
The AIA met Wednesday in a special meeting and updated their guidelines to include recommendations and policies for if there is an exposure to the coronavirus. In the meeting they approved to continue with their planned schedule, which allows football practice to start on Monday and the first games played on Oct. 2.
Buena athletes in volleyball, cross country, swim and dive as well as golf will have to make up their mandatory practices before they can start their competitions.
Douglas and Bisbee are the only two schools in the county that haven’t made a decision about athletics. Bisbee is scheduled to vote on it next week, while Douglas delayed their decision again at their board meeting on Tuesday.