The percentage of Graham County’s positive COVID-19 tests is far higher than health officials would like to open schools, but Graham County Health Director Brian Douglas is seeing some positive signs.
“From what I’ve heard, over the last week we’re seeing less symptomatic people and we’re conducting fewer tests,” Douglas said. “I believe our numbers are going to start leveling out mid-to-late this coming week.”
The World Health Organization has said that before reopening schools, positivity rates should be at or below 5 percent for at least 14 days.
Positivity rate refers to the percentage of COVID-19 tests performed in a given area that come back positive. A higher positivity rate may indicate more person-to-person spread within a region and a higher likelihood of exposure to the virus in public places or crowds.
As of last week, 34 states had positivity rates above 5 percent, according to data tracked by the John Hopkins University Research Center.
Arizona’s positivity rate was 12.7 percent as of Sunday. Graham County’s rate was 9 percent, Douglas said.
Graham County jumped from 108 COVID-19 cases on July 1 to 490 as of Sunday night.
The key to re-opening remains the same, Douglas said. People need to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and socially distance themselves.
Gov. Doug Ducey had initially said all schools would open Aug. 17. He has since decided that every school district should decide for themselves when to return to in-person learning.
Gila Valley schools are starting the year off with online, distance learning and making a decision as to when to re-open after consulting benchmarks that are expected to be released by the Arizona Department of Health Services on Aug. 7.
Douglas said he’ll be making his recommendations on Aug. 10 during a meeting with school superintendents to go over those benchmarks.
“I’d like to see our numbers level out or decline,” Douglas, the father of three grown children, said. “If that happened I’d feel comfortable sending my kids to school.”
Once schools open, Douglas said county residents should expect to see a spike in positive COVID-19 tests, just like Arizona did when Ducey lifted his stay-at-home orders.
The key is to make sure those numbers don’t reach the point where they overwhelm the health care system, Douglas said.
The uncertainty of the ever-evolving situation is proving tough for teachers, students and parents alike.
Carol Anne Weech, an American History and U.S Government teacher at Pima High School, had hoped school would open like normal on Wednesday. Then she got used to the Aug. 17 date.
“Then our district decided to stick with Aug. 5th, but start remotely. My mind is still adjusting to how that will look. So if I’m having challenges with it mentally, I can only imagine the challenges it poses for a teenager, let alone an elementary student, when so much is out of their control,” Weech said.
She definitely expects to see an impact on students, but how that manifests itself will be different for every child, she said. It will depend a lot on their personality and family situations.
“Some things that come to mind ... there will be a weakening of coping skills, of critical thinking ability, of socialization skills, of tolerance, of awareness,” Weech said. “Definitely there will be some notable academic deficiencies that may or may not surface for years. We would hope kids reach out to trusted adults when they have questions, concerns, or just need to vent ...that will help them handle the impact.”
It’s such a different world right now, it’s hard to know what to expect, she said.
“What the schools, students and families are being asked to do is so different from anything we’ve ever done before and there’s no guideline,” Weech said. “ How do we do it? I guess we’re about to find out. Open minds required, check your preconceived notions at the door.”
Ashley Scorse, a Pima Middle School counselor, agreed that how parents handle the stress of the unknown will have an impact on their children.
“I know my own children are worried and anxious about what returning will look like. They are also worried about getting started only to get stopped again,” Scorse said. “I find though that kids and teens react in much the same way their family, and those around them, is acting. I am trying harder to be upbeat and positive around my kids to lessen their fears.”
She’s finding that most parents are of like minds when it comes to opening schools.
“I am mostly hearing a loud cry from parents asking to come back into the classroom as soon as possible and to make it as ‘normal’ as possible,” she said. “Those parents who are concerned about exposure can choose to do online school, and the rest of the parents and kids seem to be chomping at the bit to return.”
When it comes to online learning, Scorse feels better prepared.
“We are learning from mistakes and we are able to reflect on what we wished we had done to guide us. Also, we are training ourselves, and each other on programs and add ons that we want to incorporate,” she said.
Cheryl Lunt, Pima High School administrative assistant, said she’s “absolutely” ready to get back to school and hopes everyone abides by the guidelines set out by health officials.
“I don’t particularly like wearing a mask. But if it will help get our students back into the classroom I will,” Lunt said. “At this point it’s not about what I want, it’s about being a responsible citizen and making it safe for everyone so we can get back to as close to ‘normal’ as we can. Then we can all take them off.”
She agrees most people want to get back to in-person schooling.
“The majority of parents want their children back in school in person. Even the students who don’t typically enjoy school are saying they want to return,” Lunt said. “I think this summer has shown our children how important connecting in person is, rather than just through technology — texting, instant message, Twitter, etc.”