COVID-19 in Arizona: School officials say delay helps, but much still needs to be done

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Arizona schools got some breathing room to prepare for classes in a time of COVID-19, when Gov. Doug Ducey this week ordered the start of classes delayed until Aug. 17. But parents and school administrators said there are still many questions about how schools will prepare. (Photo by Larry Darling/Creative Commons)

PHOENIX – When Gov. Doug Ducey announced this week that school reopenings would be pushed back to Aug. 17 because of concerns over COVID-19 infections, it raised as many questions as it answered for parents and school administrators.

While they now have a start date, school leaders are faced with the task of reopening in a state where many classrooms are already overcrowded and where a chronic teacher shortage continues, making social distancing and following safety guidelines all but impossible.

“Unless some miraculous thing happens … all of the sudden everything stops and everyone pays attention and everybody does what they need to do, I don’t see it happening,” said Sergio Chavez, president of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association.

The new date pushes back the reopening of many Arizona schools by weeks from the late-July or early-August dates some had scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year. While in-person classes will be delayed, schools will be allowed to start distance-learning earlier if they wish.

“It’s good to have some consistency there” of a firm start date, said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association. “The implementation of a mandatory wait to resume in-person is probably not the worst thing of all.”

But Kotterman agreed with Chavez that many hurdles remain before schools can be reopened. Chavez said there is no “magic wand” that can solve those issues, but until Arizona gets a handle on the rising infection rate, Aug. 17 is too soon for reopening schools.

“The responsible thing to do is to say we have to wait and see because we don’t know,” Kotterman said. “But no one likes uncertainty.”

The order to delay the start of school came days after Ducey announced that the state would direct $270 million of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security- or CARES Act – funding to help schools in the pandemic. The plan includes $200 million for remote learning and to hold schools harmless for enrollment declines, $40 million for broadband and $20 million to bring in extra help for high-needs schools.

Chavez said that, unless there is a change in current conditions, he does not plan to send his 15-year-old daughter back to school Aug. 17.

“I understand that kids need to be socialized, kids need to be talking to kids, but at the same time, kids need to be safe,” Chavez said.

Kim Graham, executive director for the Arizona Education Foundation, said that teachers need to be part of any discussion on reopening schools and keeping them healthy. But the focus should be on getting kids back to school, she said.

“Teachers miss their students and the students miss their teachers,” Graham said. “Everyone, I think, wants to be back in school, but only when it’s safe to go back.”

As of Sunday, July 5, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 98,089 cases of COVID-19 and 1,809 deaths in the state. It said a total of 785,999 tests have been completed in public and private labs in Arizona, and that 10.9% of tests have come back positive for the virus that causes the disease.

Incoming Tempe Mayor Corey Woods tests positive for COVID-19

Tempe Mayor-elect Corey Woods posted on his Facebook page that he has tested positive for COVID-19. Woods is to be sworn into office this Thursday in a virtual, online meeting. He wrote that he experienced only minor symptoms and is excited to get to work for Tempe.

No symptoms, no problem? Not so fast.

A recent study from the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego shows that asymptomatic COVID-19 patients may see significant lung problems. The study showed that patients who feel normal may have the lungs of a very sick person, which could cause long-term lung damage.

AZFamily reported Tuesday that emergency medicine Dr. Frank Lovecchio has seen many young people who test positive for COVID-19 show no symptoms, but they have the lungs of someone who “should be dead.”

Arizona Democrats criticize government’s COVID-19 response

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Arizona Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, joined a virtual campaign event Wednesday to criticize the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus and support presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

“Our hospitals are dangerously stressed, we are seeing regular increases in cases, we are very worried that we have not hit the peak and the worst is still in front of us and are already stretched very thin,” said Gallego, a Democrat.

Graphic by Cronkite News

Gallego said that when cities like Los Angeles got funds for large-scale testing sites, she was told by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that the government was scaling back and funds were no longer available for Phoenix.

Fernandez, the House minority leader, said the response from both Ducey and the federal government has been “unacceptable” and that Yuma residents suffered because of it. “We need a clear, decisive plan … that will save lives,” said Fernandez, adding that “Biden has that plan.”

Arizona Science Center temporarily closes amid rising COVID-19 cases

The Arizona Science Center announced Tuesday that concerns over the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the state have led it to “temporarily close our facility and in-person summer camps, effective immediately.”

The news release announcing the decision made no mention of a target for reopening. It outlined the reasons for the center’s closure, including modeling “responsible decision-making” and “resulting pressure on local health systems.”

Expanding online healthcare in rural areas

North Country HealthCare in Flagstaff will get more than $418,000 to expand its telehealth system, as part of $31.6 million in CARES Act grants released to health care providers across the country Wednesday by the Federal Communications Commission.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, said in a press release Wednesday that the money “will be used to purchase tablets, mobile phones, a telehealth platform, videoconferencing equipment and software, and remote monitoring equipment to improve access to telehealth and patient monitoring for COVID-19 care across northern Arizona.”

How to help

The Phoenix Indian Center is accepting monetary donations through its website to help “Tribal hot spots” like Navajo Nation. The money will be used to purchase pallets of necessary products and large quantities of sanitary products like face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and bleach.

News Reporter, Washington, D.C.

Ellie Borst is an Arizona native who expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science. Borst is the managing editor for The State Press and will intern at The Arizona Republic in the fall.