WILLCOX — The Willcox Unified School District board voted unanimously Tuesday night to keep their high school and middle school open for students, despite strong recommendations from the county health department to close down due to a coronavirus outbreak.

Nearly 50 community members in attendance at the meeting urged the board to reject the recommendation to close the schools for two weeks following two non-related student coronavirus cases at each school.

“School is the safest place to be and there is no proof that the kids contracted their illness at school,” said high school principal Tammy Hall.

Middle school principal David Chaim agreed. “We take all the precautions to keep our school safe and we want to stay open,” he said.

The county described the virus spread as an “outbreak” in a press release issued Wednesday.

The Cochise County Health Department is working collaboratively with the Willcox School District to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the schools and will continue to provide education, outreach, and technical assistance,” the county press release stated.

“The Cochise County Health Department will provide educational literature to be distributed to students and parents on the importance of isolation, minimizing contact, and monitoring themselves for symptoms to assist families.”

The decision to stay open may have other consequences.

School district superintendent Kevin Davis said their insurance company would likely pull its COVID-19 liability coverage if the district defied the recommendations of the county health department.

“We’re also running the risk of legal issues that could send us to court,” he said.

“I feel like the COVID risk is blown out of proportion,” said school board member Guy Nolan, “but I don’t think it’s wise to lose our insurance protection.”

Rating agency AM Best told the Insurance Journal that there is the broader issue of whether a school can be held legally liable if students, staff or others are impacted by the coronavirus. The answer for school boards and administrators remains a complicated one.

School districts typically have liability protection from “some form of a governmental or public entity tort immunity act” with provisions that vary by state. These acts would likely protect districts from liability if there plans to stay open dovetail with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control or local health departments, AM Best said.

“I don’t want to see any of our kids or parents get sick,” school board member Gary Clement said. “But the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and most of us want our schools open.”

The rest of the five-member board agreed and voted unanimously to defy the county health recommendations and possible loss of liability coverage and keep the schools open for now.

“The outbreak will continue to be monitored. The public will be notified of any updates as information changes,” the county release said.