The state Health Services Department

The state Health Services Department last week released this chart showing the age groups most affected in Arizona by the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis joined several counterparts and the state’s top education official last week to warn Arizonans that surging COVID-19 cases are putting them in an impossible situation.

Their pleas echoed those made last month by MPS Governing Board members, who warned that unless the entire community – not just parents and students – followed safety protocols to mitigate virus spread, classrooms could be closed again.

“Without serious changes from us, the adults making daily choices that determine the virus’ path, we cannot expect these numbers to head in a safe direction,’’ said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.

Hoffman was joined by Fourlis, two other school superintendents and state health Director Dr. Cara Christ to discuss their concern about the COVID-19 surge – which led to a two-week return to the hybrid learning model at Mesa High, where the student body was divided alphabetically into two groups that were in classrooms only two days a week.

MPS’s COVID-19 dashboard last week showed 77 students and 39 staffers are infected.

That includes not just the 16 cases at Mesa High but another 20 at Mountain View High, where the school remained in five-day in-class learning.

A district spokeswoman said Mesa High would continue in hybrid learning at least through November but that  Mountain View is proceeding with five-day in-class learning for the time being.

The press conference was driven partly by the upcoming long Thanksgiving holiday, which has provoked concern nationally about large “super-spreader” gatherings – even in homes – that will increase the spread of the virus.

To mitigate that spread in Mesa, Fourlis last week told parents in an email that all district students will be learning at home the Monday after that weekend to ”decrease the likelihood of school spread of COVID-19 due to social activities related to the Thanksgiving holiday.”

During the press conference, Fourlis said, “We need a community effort to continue so that our schools stay open and to make sure that we’re making wise decisions because we know that while many of us have COVID fatigue, COVID has not been fatigued. 

“It is still alive and well and we have to do all that we can to keep it out of our schools. So, I ask for your continued community support.”

Three days after that press conference, new data released by the county health department underscored the educators’ concerns.

Of the three benchmarks that districts are urged to consider when deciding whether to close schools, cases per 100,000 people within MPS boundaries remained in the category indicating substantial spread at 130. 

The data were from the first week of November and are compared with readings from the previous week.

Positive new test results for the week of Nov. 1 were at 6.9 percent in MPS boundaries, a slight decrease from the previous week’s 7.3 percent but still within the category for moderate spread.

But some Mesa ZIP codes showed higher virus levels.

Among them was 85210, where cases per 100,000 were at 172 and positive test results at 9.8 percent. In 85209, there were 159 cases and positive test results were at 6.2 percent.

In 85213, where Mountain View is located, county data showed 131 cases per 100,000 and a 6.8 percent test positivity. Mesa High School’s 85204 showed 122 cases and a positivity level of 7.5 percent.

State officials are suggesting that districts only consider closing campuses if all three benchmarks show a substantial virus spread. 

While two have been trending upwards, the third – percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms has remained in the minimal spread category in Mesa and most neighboring districts.

Christ, while making multiple suggestions for dealing with the spread of the disease, said she’s not prepared to recommend new restrictions on individual and business activities.

“We continue to monitor the data on a daily basis,’’ she said, adding that her department will work with individual counties in the event of a major outbreak.

But Christ later in the week reported, “While the statewide metrics still meet the benchmarks for the moderate category of COVID-19 spread for business and school opening, we are seeing case rates, percent positivity, and COVID-like Illness increase in many counties across all regions of the state.”

She said positive test results hit 9 percent statewide and that while cases were increasing at all age levels, people in the 20-24-year age bracket now account for nearly half of all new cases.

At the press conference, Hoffman warned that people are mistaken if they there’s no difference between in-class and at-home learning.

“When our schools close to in-person instruction, it is devastating to our communities,’’ she said.

“Parents are thrown in flux as they try to decide the best model for distance learning, whether at home or at an on-site learning center,’’ Hoffman continued. “Educators must adapt quickly, transitioning from in-person and hybrid to distance learning.”

And then there are the effects on children, separated from friends and, as Christ said, at greater risk for depression and suicide.

State health and education officials are setting up a pilot program for free weekly testing of teachers.

Vail Unified Superintendent John Carruth said at the press conference that schools aren’t causing the virus surge, reiterating what Mesa school officials have been saying for weeks. “Both our experience and what I think our Pima County data are showing is that transmission is happening in the community and not within our schools,’’ he said. 

Christ does have some answers to that, specifically with recommendations for what families should be doing this Thanksgiving to prevent these traditional family gatherings from turning into spreader events.

It starts, she said, with moving celebrations outside or a local park.

If that can’t happen, Christ said “create spaces’’ indoors so people can distance from one another, open doors and windows for better ventilation, and reduce the number of people gathered around the table.

“And consider celebrating virtually with your college-age students or your higher-risk and elderly relatives,’’ she said.

Paul Maryniak is the executive editor of the Tribune and Howard Fischer is with Capitol Media Services.

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