Christ says closing Arizona schools due to COVID-19 would be last resort
PHOENIX – With COVID-19 on the rise in many parts of Arizona, the state’s top health official said keeping school campuses open is a top priority.
“Pulling kids out of in-person school would be one of the last resorts,” Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s The Mike Broomhead Show on Thursday.
“I think we want to try to keep our schools open and make sure that our kids are getting the education and the services they need.”
The weekly update of the department’s COVID-19 dashboard for education was released earlier in the day. It showed metrics rising in multiple counties but no changes in the recommendations for school operations.
Fourteen counties continued to be in the recommended range for hybrid learning, and one, Greenlee, was still in the range for traditional learning.
Some counties saw certain metrics rise into the virtual-only stage, but that would have to happen in all three benchmarks for weeks for the recommended range to change, per department policy.
Maricopa County is far from seeing its recommendation downgraded from hybrid because it’s still in the minimal range for the COVID-like illness hospital visit metric and in the low end of the hybrid range for percent positivity of diagnostic testing.
However, for the first time since the dashboard was unveiled, the state’s largest county moved into the substantial spread range – the threshold for a recommendation of online-only classes — for cases per 100,000 residents.
Districts have the final say in the services their schools they offer, and the benchmarks were developed as guidance. Some have gone to traditional learning levels in hybrid-recommended areas, while others still haven’t started in-person instruction.
Christ said her team is working closely with the Arizona Department of Education and individual schools on mitigation efforts.
“Schools are an essential service, and I think that our kids get so many benefits from schools beyond education,” she said.
The state’s COVID-19 business dashboard, which is based on similar metrics as the schools dashboard, also had its weekly update Thursday. It, too, showed a rise in metrics, in some cases into the substantial spread range, without any status changes.
The main difference is that the business COVID-19 stages are requirements, while the schools dashboard is only guidance.
The business benchmarks apply to indoor gyms, bars operating as restaurants, theaters, water parks and tubing venues — which had been closed June 29 under executive order. Those establishments were permitted to reopen under restrictions after their counties reached the moderate spread level.
Both dashboards are based on levels set by the health department in three metrics: COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents, percent positivity of diagnostic testing and percentage of hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses.
The dashboards are updated every Thursday, with the latest data at least 12 days old to account for lags in reporting, ensuring that assessments are based on accurate statistics. Therefore, the latest update covers the weeks starting Oct. 11 and 18 (through Oct. 24).
Key metrics about the severity of Arizona’s pandemic have dropped dramatically from summertime peaks. However, cases and hospitalizations have been trending upward over the last month-plus and deaths have been surging in the last week.
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 2,135 new coronavirus cases and 28 more deaths on Thursday, pushing the state’s totals to 252,768 COVID-19 infections and 6,087 fatalities.
“So we remain concerned here at the department,” Christ said. “This is a higher number than we’ve seen come in since the end of July, beginning of August.”