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Here’s what KTAR News learned from ‘Pandemic in Arizona: One Year In’

(Courtesy Photo/Kate Hursh)

PHOENIX – When the World Health Organization designated the spread of the novel coronavirus as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, Arizona had nine confirmed cases and no fatalities.

In the ensuing 12 months, COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, infected about 830,000 Arizonans and killed more than 16,000.

In a weeklong special report, “Pandemic in Arizona: One Year In,” KTAR News 92.3 FM reporters looked beyond the numbers to illustrate the pandemic’s Grand Canyon-sized impact on the state.

Here are series highlights that show some of the many ways COVID-19 altered life in the state:

Learning to teach from afar

After spending nearly a year teaching in front of a computer screen, Angelica Gaona headed back to her Phoenix classroom for the first time in a year.

Gaona began teaching virtually from her home last March after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced a statewide closure of schools over coronavirus concerns.

The year of online-only instruction hasn’t been easy, and most of her students aren’t ready for fifth grade.

“There’s definitely going to be a lot of gaps to fill. The amazing thing about kids, though, is their minds grow so much better than adults. I know that we can catch them up, but I know they’re not prepared,” she said.

— Griselda Zetino

When a home becomes a school

Many Arizona families had to adjust to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. But one Gilbert family had to transform their entire house into a school so 11 of their kids could learn from home.

Kate and George Hursh have 12 adopted children, ranging from 5 to 14 years old. All but one are in school. They attend four different schools within Gilbert Public Schools and started out the academic year doing online learning.

“The Wi-Fi was a big challenge for us,” Kate said. “As you can imagine, 11 online simultaneously — my husband trying to work from home and do his Zoom calls. At points in the day, we were like, ‘OK, everyone needs to log off right now because it’s really important dad has a job.”’

— Griselda Zetino

Fighting fires and a virus at same time

As the coronavirus ran rampant throughout the community, it was clearly reflected in the Phoenix Fire Department’s members as they continued to work on the front lines during the pandemic.

Not only did hundreds of firefighters test positive in the past year, but they were also routinely exposed to COVID-19 on the job.

“We were doing stuff we had never done before: emergency staffing, phone calls telling people you have to come into work, we had people that were in very important staff positions that we had to put back on trucks,” Capt. Rob McDade said.

After an exhausting year, the profession looks forward to the future as there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine now available.

— Ali Vetnar

Working out means masking up

Joel Youngblood, a former third base coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks, called the gym closures in 2020 a “rainout.”

Even though Youngblood was never a catcher in his Major League Baseball career, he’s back at Mountainside Fitness working out in a mask.

“It’s hot,” he explained. “It becomes more humid and, quite frankly, some masks start to stink after a while.”

Yet Youngblood will wear the mask and take one for the team until the pandemic is over so that Mountainside Fitness can stay open and avoid outbreaks of COVID-19.

— Peter Samore

Yoga studio stretched beyond its limits

By June, with fitness centers able to reopen, it seemed like there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for Yoga Onyx in Phoenix.

“Then there was a second closure and it was really difficult to navigate,” owner Jamie Swirtz remembered. “So it was probably like six months, about half the year, there was almost nothing going on.”

Following the second shutdown, Swirtz’s small studio became a shadow of its former self.

On Feb. 21, nearly a year after the pandemic began, Yoga Onyx held its last class.

— Taylor Kinnerup

High school athletes play through adversity

The Arizona Interscholastic Association originally canceled winter prep sports but later reversed course.

This resulted in a variety of emotions for Kevin Tucker’s son, a senior point guard at Perry High School in Gilbert.

“He was on this roller coaster,” Tucker said. “I went to check on him. He said, ‘I’m just mad.’”

Tucker even helped by chasing his son’s rebounds over the summer in 115-degree heat.

Yet no college coaches were chasing 17-year-old Christian Tucker because the COVID-19 pandemic wouldn’t let them travel.

“I just try to maintain contact with some of the coaches that I’ve been talking to,” Christian said. “I put together a little highlight tape and sent that out.”

Despite the roller-coaster start, Christian Tucker was able to play a winter season and made the playoffs.

— Peter Samore

Basketball coach rides out ups, downs

Clint Treadway, varsity boys basketball coach at Arizona College Prep in Chandler, says coaching and playing with masks was something he never expected to see in his lifetime.

“Up until a year ago I don’t think I’d ever worn a mask except when my son was born,” Treadway said. “Now we’re playing with it and it’s common nature.”

Treadway says coaching during the pandemic has been a huge challenge, but he believes it brought coaches and players even closer.

“It was such a roller coaster, so many ups and downs,” he said. “But at least we experienced it together. Any time you go through hard times or good times, they were able to bond. We went on a hike together and some other stuff and that was a great experience. So I think they grew closer.”

Looking down the road to a year from now he would love to see the bleachers packed with parents and students at games and the pandemic hopefully in the past. And he’s looking forward to tossing away the mask.

— Jim Cross

Bar changes game plan to survive

Before the pandemic struck, Cobra Arcade Bar in downtown Phoenix was known for long lines, a crowded dance floor and dozens of arcade games.

“Owning your own businesses is difficult as it is, but having to deal with the pandemic, it has obviously been a big obstacle for us,” owner Ari Bracamonte, said.

The business is now a much more toned-down version of what it once was.

The bar installed plastic barriers, now serves pizza and had to remove dozens of games to make room for tables and chairs. Bracamonte also now asks his employees to test for the virus frequently to ensure the bar is safe for employees and patrons.

“It’s challenging to train the patrons that know us as a place to dance and move around and play games into sitting down and having to treat this place like a seat-in experience,” he said.

— Gabriel Gamiño

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