Santa Calls

“Santa Calls” provide virtual visits with Santa Claus.

From “Santa Calls” replacing kids sitting on Kris Kringle’s lap to kids learning on laptops at home, the Christmas season is quite a bit different this year­—thanks, of course, to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though Glendale Elementary and Glendale Union High school districts have closed classrooms and returned to online learning only, Peoria Unified School District and Deer Valley Unified School District continue to teach in classrooms.

That will change, as DVUSD will close classrooms to start the New Year. 

But the PUSD board pledged to keep Glendale and Peoria classrooms open when 2021 begins.

According to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, much of Glendale and Peoria is now “in the red,” meaning substantial spread of coronavirus. The Dec. 10 school metrics update shows PUSD’s overall risk level as “substantial” with a recommendation of “prepare for virtual with onsite support.”

On Dec. 4, Dr. Jason Reynolds, the PUSD superintendent, cautioned the district was on the verge of closing classrooms. “Our community health data is trending in the wrong direction,” Reynolds said. “We are currently in the red in two benchmarks. We reconvened our COVID taskforce and are in the process of making plans for a potential return to virtual learning.”

But the Peoria Unified Governing Board voted 5-0 to return from winter break on Monday, Jan. 4, “in our current instructional models—with students attending school in-person or virtually, depending on which instructional model families previously selected for their children,” Reynolds said in a Dec. 11 announcement.

“We continue to ask that our students, staff and families practice safe procedures and stay healthy so we can continue to stay open and offer in-person instruction,” he added.

 Reynolds said each school will have new air purification systems by Jan. 4 “and will continue to utilize each site’s Clorox 360 disinfecting machine. We continue to explore all other mitigation strategies that can help us keep our schools safe.”

Students and staff are required to wear masks in school and maintain social distancing.

While Deer Valley School District classrooms remain open this week, that will change after winter break.

“It is true that our schools have experienced an accelerated increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases since the onset of the holiday season. Despite this increase, we have been able to continue in-person teaching and learning, and we plan to do so through December 18. We do believe that our schools are the safest places to be due to our mitigation plan and the dedicated work of our campus administrators, teachers and other support staff,” said DVUSD Superintendent Curtis Finch in a Dec. 9 letter to families.

“Our data also shows that students and staff—in most cases—are not spreading COVID-19 at school; however, case counts in the community have risen over the past several weeks.”

And, Finch said, “We anticipate that the number of cases will rise after our winter break where we would not be able to adequately staff our schools and the number of students needing to quarantine and isolate would be unusually high. This belief is shared by Maricopa County Department of Public Health.”

As such, the district will resume classes Jan. 4 online only.

DVUSD plans to reopen classrooms for kindergarten through eighth grade students Jan. 19 and high school students Jan. 25.

Meanwhile, vaccines are here. After the FDA gave emergency approval, Pfizer started shipping its coronavirus vaccine throughout the country starting Dec. 14.

“Maricopa County Department of Public Health received its first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine,” according to a Public Health email Dec. 14. 

Four boxes holding approximately 18,000 doses arrived at a Public Health facility before being transported to two PODs—points of distribution—in other parts of the county.

The first vaccines will be distributed to eligible health care workers across the county.

 

‘Santa Calls’

Beyond school recommendations, the heightened spread of coronavirus impacted public gatherings and celebrations—which normally would be filling the 12 days of Christmas.

At Park West in Peoria, Santa has been on the scene “for socially distanced pic opportunities.”

Another sign of the changes: At Westgate Entertainment District, kids can see and talk to Santa Claus—but they can’t sit on his lap as they talk about present plans.

Westgate promotes “Santa Calls” as “experience belief by connecting with Santa via a virtual visit at Fountain Park. … Santa Calls invites guests to share their holiday wishes and safely savor screen time with Saint Nick.”

Reservations can be made at

westgateaz.com/santa.

David Carmichael, 55, is a North Carolina “freelance voiceover artist” who has played Santa at malls and parties for the last few years.

He is one of the Santas taking virtual calls from kids at Westgate.

“They see me and I greet them and give them a hearty ho ho ho,” he said.

He said kids have no problem with online Santa visits.

“They grew up with technology. They’re more used to it than the parents are,” Carmichael said.

Visits are just like they have been for years: “They’re sometimes shy, sometimes they talk a lot, sometimes they don’t—just like what happens to them when they meet you in person.”

What have wish lists been like this year?

“Normal stuff,” Santa Carmichael said. “I’ve gotten requests for Barbie dolls. A Nerf gun, dinosaurs, requests for art supplies. It’s all over the board.”

Adding to the mysterious powers of Santa, Carmichael can often greet the children by name—as reservations are made in advance.

“So I can say, ‘Is that Ethan? It’s been so long! It’s been a year since I’ve seen you!’” Carmichael said.

Just like when he spends hours in malls with kids on his lap, Carmichael is exhausted after a shift of Santa Calls.

“What I find is tiring is constantly being in character. You will step away from a three- or four-hour shift of being Santa Claus, where you have a steady stream of children—I will find I’m exhausted,” he said.

But, just like seeing the kids in person, the job has its magical moments:

“Other than being tired as I step away from being Santa, I’m happy. I’m fulfilled. 

“There’s a certain sense of joy about seeing Christmas in their eyes.”