Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry today said schools should not reopen for in-person instruction on Aug. 17, based on the county’s current data on COVID-19 community spread.
In response, the Catalina Foothills School District announced today that it was cancelling in-person classes for the foreseeable future and moving to an online-only model.
Amphi and Tucson Unified School District have board meetings tonight and Marana School District is scheduled to have a meeting on Thursday.
Huckelberry sent a letter to all Pima County public school superintendents on Tuesday, July 28, to follow up on Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent executive order, which directed all county health departments to work with local school districts to determine when it is safe to return to school campuses.
“Clearly, County public health agencies with real time information and data regarding the pandemic are in the best position to offer public health advice regarding school activities related to managing the spread of COVID-19,” Huckelberry wrote.
He stated that Pima County is not ready for schools to go back to traditional learning, citing local COVID-19 infections which are at the “highest daily amounts since the pandemic began.”
Space in local hospitals for COVID-19 patients was nearly exceeded and critical patients had to be transferred to other hospitals in the state, according to Huckelberry. He said widespread testing for COVID-19 with quick turnaround times is only just getting started.
Huckelberry said county-wide transmission rates remain above 11 percent, while the World Health Organization recommends that rates be below 5 percent prior to a reopening.
Huckelberry, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia and Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen believe the earliest start date for in-person instruction is after Labor Day, Sept. 7, or possibly early October.
Huckelberry said this recommendation should not prevent schools from opening facilities for “at-risk youth” as intended in Gov. Ducey’s executive order. He suggests all safety precautions be taken such as wearing face masks, doing wellness checks, observing physical distancing guidelines and sanitizing surfaces.
Due to the nature of contact sports, county health professionals are suggesting schools shift fall semester sports to the spring 2021 semester. Any extracurricular activities that can safely take place with precautions are allowed.
Huckelberry said the county is already using a data tool that consists of nine public health metrics that are color coded similarly to a traffic signal. Today, six of those nine criteria are red. He said this tool could be used in conjunction with the public health benchmarks generated by the Arizona Department of Health Services to give school districts an indication of relative risk for reopening their campuses.
The county recently opened a COVID-19 testing site at the Kino Event Center and is in the process of opening two additional sites at the Ellie Town Flowing Wells Community Center and the eastside Udall Center.
“These facilities will be available to school districts, their faculty, staff as well as students and their families,” Huckelberry wrote. “We will explore making blocks of time for school district personnel to be tested on Thursdays or Fridays. With test results will be desired by the following Monday so those who test negative may immediately return to work.”
A new Back to School Committee has been created by the county to bring various superintendents and principals together to agree on local standards for managing the COVID-19 crisis and school activities.
“It is very important that community trust be built regarding the safety of our public schools,” Huckelberry wrote. “As the County public health agency, we are fully prepared to support our public schools as you navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Catalina Foothills School District Superintendent Mary Kamerzell responded to Huckelberry’s recommendations in an email to employees and families. She said CFSD will begin the school year with all classes taught remotely using CFSDOnline with Google Classroom as their online learning platform.
Students will participate in remote learning with an established schedule, which will allow for a “smooth transition” to in-person learning when it is determined that schools will be able to safely reopen,” Kamerzell said.
“This is such a challenging time for all of us,” she wrote. “We will do our best to be flexible, listen to your feedback, and communicate in the future about an in-person option.”