Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert intends to ask the governing board Thursday night to allow students to come back to school for in-person learning on Monday.
In a letter sent to parents, Rickert said that after speaking with Graham County health officials, studying the state health department's benchmarks, conducting a parent survey and speaking with teachers he sees no reason why schools should remain closed.
"Throughout the pandemic Pima has seen a lower than expected number of cases. This has persisted in spite of opening our town pool and the town’s library," Rickert wrote.
As far as the area's positivity rates, he has questions, he said.
"This is the number of positive cases as a portion of those tested. The problem is when you test only sick people, you’d expect most of them to test positive. Even with our ‘targeted testing’ strategy fewer than one out of every five tests yield positive results. Also, if we changed our testing strategy, we would see a different ‘positivity’ level. Neither of these facts makes me feel confident about making decisions based on ‘positivity,'" Rickert said.
Rickert also pointed out that one of the bench marks looks at the percentage of people who go to the hospital with COVID-19-like symptoms. In the Gila Valley's case, the state is looking at numbers in Santa Cruz, Pima, Cochise, Greenlee and Graham counties, but not at Mt. Graham Regional Hospital, he said.
"When asked if our hospital is struggling to handle an increasing demand for services due to COVID-19, I was told it is not. So, the logic we’d applied to school closures this spring is no longer needed," Rickert wrote. "The representatives from the county health department are extremely helpful and have been hard at work providing us with information and services our community should be very appreciative of, but they did not give me a reason to justify closing schools."
The superintendent acknowledged teachers have concerns about bringing students back to school and it will be "a great deal of work" to get ready for the re-opening, "but our teachers did not provide a reason to justify keeping schools closed."
More than 90 percent of parents who participated in a survey indicated they want to send their children back to school as long as safety precautions were in place, Rickert said. Those precautions include providing meals to elementary school students in their classrooms, high school students maintaining social distancing in the cafeteria and the wearing of masks.
Students who remain home can continue to learn from home, but parents must contact their schools, he said.
"This is not a decision I have made lightly. From day one my top priority and my first concern has been to balance the need to provide a quality education for every child with the need to do
so in a safe environment. At this time that means returning to on campus school," the superintendent wrote.
Whether the schools will be able to remain open will depend on students following the health guidelines, he said.
"We will carefully monitor data from the County Health Department indicating the number of cases in Pima. If we see a marked increase in the number of cases affecting school age children or adults in our community, we may return to distance learning," Rickert told the parents. "You will receive regular updates letting you know where those numbers are trending."
He encouraged parents to call the district if they have questions and to attend Thursday night's meeting which will be held at 6 p.m. in the Digger O’Dell Community Activity Center.