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Gila County superintendent ‘very concerned’ about reopening schools

(Getty Images/Anthony Devlin)

PHOENIX — The decision over whether to open schools for students is weighing heavily on the mind of a superintendent of a small school district in southeastern Arizona that lost a teacher to the coronavirus earlier this summer.

Jeff Gregorich, superintendent of the Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District, said he understands the benefits of in-person learning and knows some parents need a place to send their kids during the day.

“But right now in the middle of a pandemic and knowing we’re in one of the hotspots, I’m very concerned for the safety of the kids and our staff,” he said.

Gregorich is worried students could get COVID-19 at school and take it home to their families. He noted many of the students are Latinos and live in multigenerational families.

He also can’t imagine losing another teacher to the coronavirus. His school district already lost Kimberly Byrd, a first-grade teacher whom he described as “a superstar teacher.”

Byrd, who had been at the district since 1982, was teaching a virtual summer school along with two other teachers. They shared a room but had their own work areas in different parts of the room and constantly wiped down their spaces.

Despite taking these and other safety precautions, they all got COVID-19. Byrd died from it on June 26 and the other teachers recovered.

“The teachers are very scared,” Gregorich said. “Our staff is very concerned and, of course, since we’ve had more cases even more so.”

Over the last few weeks, four more employees in the district have tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to seven. A few more are waiting for their results.

“We’re a small school district. We only have 60 employees, including teachers,” Gregorich said. “So a large percent of our staff has gotten the coronavirus, and we haven’t even brought the students into the equation, which is very concerning.”

The Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District plans to offer online learning for at least the first quarter of the school year, with classes starting Sept. 8. All students will be assigned iPads and provided hotspots if they don’t have internet access at home.

Gregorich said he and governing board members are considering extending online learning, but a big concern is losing out on funding if they don’t open schools for in-person learning.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan for reopening schools notes schools will get 5% more in funding for each student who attends classes in person. The governor’s executive order also states schools will be eligible to get grant funding “to address any potential shortfall that might occur” if they open their doors to some students starting on Aug. 17.

“That is weighing heavily on what we’re facing right now,” Gregorich said. “We’re really in the process of really thinking about how we could possibly expect us to keep kids safe when we’re having trouble keeping ourselves safe without students in the equation.”

He added superintendents in other small communities share similar concerns.

“We went into education to decide what curriculum is best, what strategies we are going to use to teach our little ones — and now we’re having to decide life and death decisions,” he said.

“None of us ever imagined we would have to make this type of decision.”

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