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.