As COVID-19 surges across Arizona, Chandler Unified officials are taking a school-by-school approach to closing campuses rather than implementing a district-wide shut-down.
Stating transmission rates are not high enough district-wide to warrant closing all campuses, CUSD administrators last week unveiled a plan to close campuses on an individualize basis if the number of coronavirus cases among staff and students combined would hit certain percentages of that total.
Gilbert Public Schools adopted a similar approach earlier this month.
CUSD administrators told the Governing Board that the county’s data, released every Thursday morning, don’t entirely represent how the virus is spreading in Chandler’s schools.
“Our early CUSD data does not indicate COVID-19 is being transmitted on our campuses really at any substantial rate,” said Larry Rother, the district’s executive director of educational services. “Transmission rates at our schools do not mirror the transmission rates in the community.”
As of Nov. 18, CUSD reported 45 active cases of COVID-19 among its students and staff district-wide. Another 180 cases have been cleared and the infected individual has been allowed to return to campus.
Casteel High School has had one of the highest rates of infection among the district’s 46 campuses -- reporting at least 61 cases of the virus since CUSD reopened schools in September.
Casteel’s infection rate is currently still below new thresholds CUSD has recently implemented dictating when it will temporarily have to close a school.
At least 1 percent of a high school’s population would have to test positive for COVID-19 before CUSD closes the campus for five days and shifts back to virtual learning.
Elementary schools would need to have a 2-percent infection rate and junior high schools a 1.5 percent rate before activating closure procedures.
Families would be notified at least 48 hours before CUSD initiated a school closure and staff would begin disinfecting the entire campus, according to the new procedure.
For example, a campus the size of Hamilton High School, the district’s biggest school, would need about 40 active virus cases before it would be closed. District data show Hamilton currently has five cases of COVID-19.
A smaller campus like Frye Elementary School, which has reported no cases, would need to at least 10 students and staff test positive to meet the closure threshold.
Assistant Superintendent Frank Narducci said CUSD intentionally made the thresholds different between elementary and secondary schools because campuses with fewer students are better at mitigating the virus.
The public has underestimated how well kindergartners have adapted to the district’s health protocols, he said, which has kept the infection rate lower at most of the elementary campuses.
That mirrors the reports from other school districts, which have found younger children present less resistance to wearing masks all day.
“A lot of people thought our little kids couldn’t wear masks when they came back to school,” Narducci said. “Well, every single one of them did a great job.”
The board met hours after an unrelated press conference by Gov. Doug Ducey in which he refused to impose new restrictions or mandates on individuals even as his own health chief warned of an increasing number of Arizonans becoming infected with COVID-19.
The governor dismissed the idea of a statewide mask mandate, calling it unnecessary given various local ordinances. Nor will he clamp down on existing occupancy limits at bars, restaurants, gyms or movie theaters or seek to curb their hours of operation.
Ducey also made another push for keeping kids in classrooms.
“I think children should be in school,’’ the governor said. “I want parents to have options and one of those options should be in-person learning.’’
Ducey said he believes that is in the best interests of children, even as schools have wrestled with how to provide instruction and keep the youngsters and staffers – and, by extension, their families – safe.
A statewide spike in COVID-19 cases has prompted districts in Yuma, Phoenix, and Tucson to close all their campuses again until infection rates ebb.
During the Chandler Unified Governing Board meeting, Narducci said that because it is generally more challenging for bigger campuses to implement social-distancing guidelines, CUSD administrators think high schools should have a smaller threshold to trigger a shutdown.
All the district’s elementary schools have had a smaller number of COVID-19 cases compared to the high schools, Narducci added, so it seemed logical to give elementary campuses a higher threshold for closure.
CUSD officials said eliminating in-person learning could have disastrous effects on students and their mental health and that their individualized approach would be most beneficial for families and the community.
But some district leaders also are worried how the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays could impact infection rates.
Board member Lindsay Love said she is concerned that district’s teachers and support staff are being forgotten during discussions about closure policies.
“One of the things we’re missing is how this is going to impact the positivity rate of our staff when we have two holidays coming up,” she said. “We have a lack of testing and a lack of transparency within our community.”
Love, who is self-isolating at home after showing symptoms of the virus, highlighted how everyone -- especially teachers – can be vulnerable to infection despite the precautions they may take to protect themselves.
“Even with the mitigation that I have taken, I’m still at home with a virus that has not been determined and it could be COVID,” Love added. “If we’re not looking at our teachers and their health, we’re going to have teachers who are going to walk.”
According to the district’s data, 46 out of the 5,000 CUSD staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in an infection rate that’s less than half of a percent.
Since the district reopened schools on Sept. 14, more than 1,800 students have had to return home and quarantine after coming into contact with an infected classmate.
Only nine of these quarantined students ended up testing positive for the virus. No teachers have reported catching the virus after contact with an infected colleague or student, district officials said.
Board President Barbara Mozdzen said she feels the district’s data vindicate CUSD’s health protocols and their effectiveness in minimizing virus spread on campuses.
“I am very, very happy to see that our mitigation strategies are actually being proven – by our data – that they are effective,” Mozdzen said. “That is a testimony to all our staff and families who are complying and taking this seriously.”
Though transmission rates appear to be low on campuses, board member David Evans is worried about the number of students who may have to undergo a 2-week quarantine.
More than 1,000 students have already had to be quarantined since the schools reopened, Evans noted, and have to had transition back and forth from virtual to in-person learning over a short period of time.
Quarantined students are given virtual access to their classes and teachers have to make accommodations so they can still participate remotely in lessons.
This type of constant transitioning must be destabilizing to students and teachers, Evans added, and should be addressed as more students continue to be quarantined.
“We know that If spread is happening from the outside into the district, we’re probably going to continue to see more (quarantining),” Evans said. “If not over this holiday, then over the next one and ongoing.”