HUACHUCA CITY— COVID and its impacts on school closures was the hot topic at the Tombstone Unified School District Governing Board meeting Wednesday evening.
In his report to board members, district Superintendent Robert Devere talked about “skyrocketing” COVID cases throughout Cochise County and a possibility the district may be facing school closures and remote learning before the district’s winter break.
In his opening comments, Devere told the board that along with rapidly increasing COVID numbers in Cochise County, 15 to 20 staff members are out every day, making it challenging to cover classes.
“The (COVID) numbers have been going up by several hundred active cases in the county every couple of days,” Devere said. “We (TUSD) have a number of kids out, but only a few with actual positive COVID tests.”
However, it’s unclear how many students are getting tested after exposure to the disease, Devere said. In addition, there are populations of asymptomatic carriers that are not getting tested.
Devere said he has been working closely with county and state officials on a regular basis regarding COVID issues and, based on what is being reported, schools are still the safest place for kids.
“That is the county and state’s approach to this,” he said. “The rate of infections in public schools is running about a fourth of community infection rates,” he noted.
Devere said that while TUSD has not had an outbreak as defined by the CDC, that scenario could change any time.
“Every Thursday, the state metrics are updated, and we follow those closely when it comes to making decisions about whether we can keep our campuses open,” he said.
“We are working really, really hard to keep our schools open to the Christmas break.”
The district’s winter break starts Dec. 18, with students returning to school on Jan. 4. Even with so few days left prior to the break, Devere did not sound optimistic about keeping the campuses open until then, given the county’s surging COVID numbers.
“It’s going to be tough,” he said, adding, “I would say we have a better chance of not making it to Christmas break.”
If the district is forced to close its campuses — because of a two-week lag in the state’s data — Devere said there is a significant chance they will not be reopening at the end of the break for in-person learning, at least until the state’s metrics improve.
The following conditions could cause schools to close:
an outbreak in a school;
if the county has all three state benchmarks in the red category, with red as the greatest risk. As of Wednesday’s meeting, Cochise County was sitting right at two red benchmarks and one yellow;
not enough staff to safely supervise the students.
The county’s two red metrics reflect the percentage that have tested positive for COVID and the amount of cases per 100,000 on a countywide basis, Devere said. The data is based on countywide numbers, as the state does not break the metrics out on a district level. The one yellow metric represents the percent of COVID-like illnesses that present at hospital settings, measured on a multi-county basis of Cochise, Graham, Greenlee and Santa Cruz counties.
“With respect to needed staff, we currently have teachers who are teaching from home with an aide supervising the class, we are combining classes and we have assigned three of our district office staff members to the schools to help cover classes,” Devere said.
Despite the fact that COVID numbers in both Tombstone and Huachuca City zip codes are some of the lowest in the county, Devere informed the board the district may need to close and transition to remote learning until the situation improves.
Board member Rick Shelley asked if there is data available that tracks how students who are learning remotely are doing academically, compared to the in-person students.
Devere said the district tracks its remote students and compares those results with other districts.
“The remote students overall are doing lousy,” he said. “The failure rate districtwide among the remote students is about 40 percent. When looking at other districts, we are actually ahead of many of the other districts.”
Devere told the board that at all three of the district’s schools the remote students have the highest failure rate, the hybrid student failure rate is next and the fully in-person students have the lowest failure rate.
“On a national basis this is a hot topic,” added Devere, who also noted that teachers are not to be blamed for increases in failure rates.
“We have told the teachers they will not be evaluated based on that this year,” Devere said.
Not only is there an agreement, or contract, between the teacher and a student, parents are expected to bear some of the responsibility when students are at home studying remotely. If students are not taking remote learning seriously and there is no oversight from parents, Devere said there’s nothing teachers can do to control those situations.
“We provide them access to a top quality education,” he said. “We provide them remediation, we provide them tutoring, we provide them timelines that will work with the remote setting. But we cannot sit on them like we can if they’re goofing off in school. In a remote setting, that falls on the parents,” Devere said.