Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima School Board President Troy Thygerson, left, and board member Melissa Batty listen to a teacher’s comment. The school boards of both Pima and Thatcher voted to return to in-person instruction Monday, Aug. 17, while the Safford School Board voted to remain with distance learning until recommended county benchmarks regarding COVID-19 are met.
Safford will reassess in two weeks
By Jon Johnson
GRAHAM COUNTY – Two of Graham County’s three main school districts will begin in-person schooling Monday, Aug. 17, but the largest – the Safford Unified School District (SUSD) – will remain with distance learning for now.
Both the Thatcher and Pima school boards voted unanimously to open to in-person schooling. Pima has been doing distance learning for about a week and Thatcher will have its first school day Monday. Both schools will continue to offer distance learning for those parents who choose to not return their children to school, however, Pima’s instruction will not continue as it currently is and will switch to its online-only school curriculum.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) recommended schools not reopen to in-person learning until counties have either a decline in cases for two consecutive weeks or less than 100 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks; a percent positivity below 7 percent for two consecutive weeks; and two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses in the region is below 10 percent. Graham County is in the Southeastern Region, along with Greenlee, Cochise, Santa Cruz, and Pima counties.
As of its most recent available metrics, the ADHS has Graham County failing in two of the benchmarks by not having few enough positive test cases and not having its percentage of positive tests being low enough. For the week of July 26 – August 1, Graham County had 66 positive tests – according to the state’s metrics – for 172 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity percentage of 13.6 for the week.
After meeting with Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas on Monday, however, the Thatcher and Pima school superintendents believed their schools are safe to reopen.
“For me, schools should be open unless there’s a very real threat to the health and safety of students that justify us closing,” said Pima Superintendent Sean Rickert.
Pima was the first school in Graham County to close last March at the start of the pandemic.
“Instead of looking for green checkmarks on those three things (benchmarks), I looked at it and said, ‘ok, are there any indications that we should close schools because those three things are at a level where it’s not safe?’ And I met with the county health department and we had a conversation about those three things, and based on that conversation, I couldn’t find a reason to justify closing schools.”
“Based on my analysis and my research, I cannot find a reasonable justification for closing schools. There are steps that we will need to take to make sure that they are reopened safely. We have done a ton of work to make sure that we’re prepared to take those steps. So, for that reason, I would recommend that you approve the reopening of schools on Monday, Aug. 17.”
Thatcher Superintendent Matthew D. Peterson echoed Rickert’s remarks and sent out a letter to parents with links including a COVID-19 acknowledgment form, and a waiver release and assumption of risk form, which parents were asked to print out and sign so their students could bring them with then to school on the first day.
“We are excited to announce that our school board has approved for TUSD #4 to return to traditional, in-person instruction starting Monday, Aug. 17,” Peterson wrote in an email to parents. “If you have opted for remote learning instead, you will be beginning Monday, Aug. 17 as well and you should be hearing from your online instructor soon.”
Thatcher and Pima will have various mitigation efforts in all their schools (click here to read Thatcher’s mitigation plan) and mask-wearing will be mandatory for all staff, students, and visitors. However, Pima Superintendent Sean Rickert advised he will look into seeing if Pima teachers could wear a clear face shield instead of a mask while teaching at the front of the class while being at least six feet away from students. (The Gila Herald will have a separate article on this.)
Safford Superintendent A.J. Taylor recommended not returning until state benchmarks were met, and he was supported strongly by board member Craig Hackett, who moved to accept that recommendation. Julie Cluff seconded the motion and it passed 4-1 with Matt Herrington casting the lone dissenting vote. Safford will reassess in two weeks and see where the county stands on the benchmarks.
Fort Thomas will open its doors on Monday for students who wish to use the facilities for distance learning as required by the state, however, it has scheduled a tentative full reopening for Oct. 13. But with more than 90 percent of its students from the San Carlos Apache Reservation, if the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council has not reopened the reservation at that time the halls will be very easy to keep social distancing.
Duncan will return to in-person instruction on Monday, Aug. 17, however, Morenci will continue with distance learning for the time being.