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The number of COVID-19 cases have risen so much in Graham County over the last week that Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas has asked each school district to consider returning to distance learning.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Department of Health Services recommended each school district reach three benchmarks before reopening and right now, Graham County has fallen below two out of three of the benchmarks, Douglas said.

According to Douglas, ADHS states, “Schools should consider resuming virtual learning when one or more benchmark categories are in the substantial spread.”

He met with all of the superintendents Wednesday evening to discuss the matter, Douglas said.

The Safford Unified School District's governing board is holding a special meeting Friday to discuss Douglas' recommendation. The superintendents in Thatcher and Fort Thomas have not yet responded to calls seeking comment.

Pima Unified School Superintendent Sean Rickert said he sees no need to return to distance learning right now. While there have been a few instances where PUSD students and teachers have tested positive, the health department is doing an excellent job in contract tracing and having those people self-quarantine, he said.

Other things must be taken into consideration when making such decisions besides the state's benchmarks, he said.

"The best place for children to get an education is in the classroom," Rickert said. "The percentage of parents who want to send their children to school has increased not decreased."

Douglas said he could not predict how long the schools would have to remain closed, noting it usually takes at least one year before epidemiologists feel they have sufficient knowledge of a virus' behavior. At this point, no one knows how the coronavirus will react to cooler temperatures, he said.

The SUSD meeting is set for 7:15 a.m. at the Safford David M. Player Center for the Arts building and the public will be allowed to attend and comment on the issue.

According to the Graham County Health Department, 37 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed Oct. 11-Oct 15.

Fifteen of the patients are from Safford, 10 are San Carlos Apache tribal members and nine live in Thatcher. Two live in Pima and one lives in Fort Thomas.

Fourteen of the 37 people are under the age of 20.

COVID-19 cases have sprung up within the Pima Unified School District, prompting officials there to quarantine members of the football team and spirit line.

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