Copper Creek Elementary School

After returning to classes with masks required in the fall, students at Copper Creek Elementary School and other DVUSD students begin the New Year with classrooms closed due to COVID-19 and online learning only.

A New Year begins with school districts struggling with a divisive question: to close classrooms or not to close?

Arizona’s COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population soared to 112, the highest in the country, according to CDC data released Tuesday, Jan. 5. Arizona’s rate was nearly double the national average.

And, as of Dec. 31, Glendale and Peoria ZIP codes were all above 500 cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, indicating a “substantial” level of COVID-19 risk.

While previous guidance from public health officials was to close classrooms and have online teaching in communities with substantial spread, officials now urge districts to have students in classrooms.

The guidance appears somewhat conflicting.

For public schools in the West Valley, the Maricopa County school metrics show an overall risk level of “substantial” and “recommended learning scenario” of “virtual with onsite support.”

But, according to guidance updated Dec. 31, “Maricopa County Department of Public and Arizona Department of Health Services have agreed to support those jurisdictions who are able to maintain a safe learning environment with regular school-by-school monitoring, regardless of levels of community COVID-19 transmission.

“Further, with the recent publications emphasizing the benefits of in-person learning, particularly for elementary schools, and the emerging data indicating that in-person school attendance is not a risk factor for youth testing positive for COVID-19, MCDPH recommends preferentially keeping elementary and middle schools open for in-person learning.”

The new guidelines came after many school districts decided to close classrooms.

Like many public school districts in the West Valley, Glendale Elementary School District began 2021 with classrooms closed and learning online only.

“This week, all three benchmarks in our GESD zip codes continue to be in the Substantial category. GESD will remain in full remote learning and working when we return from winter break,” according to a Dec. 31 GESD post on Facebook.

Similarly, according to a Glendale Union High School District post, “Students will resume remote learning from home on Tuesday, Jan. 5.”

And Deer Valley Unified School District also begins the New Year with classrooms closed. According to a Jan. 3 DVUSD Facebook post, “We can’t wait to see all of our students and staff back in class (Jan. 4) to kick off learning in 2021 together! Don’t forget all DVUSD students will be returning virtually.”

But the Peoria Unified School District classrooms are open this week, after the district’s governing board voted to keep classrooms open after winter break “regardless of data.”

A Dec. 31 update shows PUSD’s three benchmarks remain “in the red” for the third consecutive week.

The cases per 100,000 in the PUSD community rose from 584 the previous week to 698. 

At GESD, according to a post by Superintendent Cindy Segotta-Jones on the district’s website and Facebook page, “the earliest projected date for a return to school in the hybrid model is Monday, Feb. 1.”

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According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the school benchmarks were developed “at the request of the education community as a guide to help school districts determine when it is safe to return to in-person instruction.” 

“The experiences of other countries have indicated that reopening schools may be lower risk in communities with lower community transmission,” according to the schools COVID-19 website.

Meanwhile, school nurses and other school health care personnel are eligible for the first phase of COVID-19 vaccinations, which began in mid-December.

The bottom line, according to the county and state: “The health, safety and well-being of students, teachers, staff, and their families are the most important considerations in determining when schools can open for in-person learning.”


COVID-19 accelerates

Arizona began December with 326,817 COVID-19 reported cases in the previous nine months and ended the month and year with 520,027 total cases. The 193,210 coronavirus cases in December was 60% of the total during the other nine months.

Maricopa County started December with 205,522 total COVID-19 cases the previous nine months and ended the month and year with 322,449 cases. The 116,927 county coronavirus cases was 57% of the total during the previous nine months.

The first five days of 2021, Arizona reported nearly 50,000 new COVID-19 cases—30,000 in Maricopa County.