Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima Superintendent Sean Rickert tells the school board he believes the school can take back previously quarantined students with additional safety protocols to those who have been quarantined due to a “close contact” exposure to a person who has tested positive for the virus.
Superintendent and board believe action to be safe and in the best interests of the students
By Jon Johnson
PIMA – With the rise of the delta variant and subsequent increase of positive COVID-19 cases, a number of students who have been deemed to have “close contact” with a subject who tested positive have been sent home from school on mandatory quarantines from the Graham County Department of Health and Human Services. Well, it turns out the quarantines aren’t so mandatory, according to the Pima Unified School District.
“Last year, the situation was what the situation was,” said Pima Superintendent Sean Rickert at the board’s Tuesday night meeting. “We had students from time to time who were issued orders of quarantine; we had staff who were issued quarantine orders from the county health department. And when those orders were sent to us we basically told them to stay home. And that’s the practice that has been in place. It’s what everybody was doing and nobody questioned it last year. This year, things are a little bit different.”
“I believe that we can bring students that we have previously thought we had to exclude from school back to school,” Rickert said. “I will work with the principals over this weekend . . . and we will put a plan in place to implement those types of actions.”
The Pima School Board discussed its implementation of a “statutory authorization for exclusion of quarantined students from school” and came up with a plan to allow students who have been recently quarantined to return to school if they follow the newly implemented “quarantine guidelines”. Safety measures include students who have been quarantined may come back to school prior to the end of the quarantine if they wear a mask while on campus.
“We can isolate those students with the masks and keep everybody else safe again and be able to have those kids in classrooms with teachers learning what they need to learn,” Rickert said.
While legislation prohibiting schools from issuing mask mandates is soon to be fought in court, the school advises it cannot institute any mask or vaccine mandate, but it can advise quarantined students that they can return to class prior to the end of their quarantine only if they agree to properly wear a mask while on campus.
The discussion came about after an entire kindergarten class was quarantined on the district’s second day in session due to having “close contact” with a teacher’s aid. Generally listed, “close contact” as deemed by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) is being within six feet of an infected person for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. Additionally, virtually the entire Student Council class in the high school was also quarantined after a “close contact” as well as various other students.
After discussing the issue for about an hour, the board gave superintendent Rickert instruction to begin the process to bring students who have recently been placed on COVID-19 quarantine back to school with additional safety protocols, including having a fully vaccinated teacher for the kindergarten class. Other safety measures are set to be implemented to separate the class from the rest of the school and other students, like those in the Student Council that were quarantined, will be allowed back to school if they wear a mask over their nose and mouth while at the campus.
At the meeting, the board heard information from parents and grandparents in attendance, the superintendent, and Brian Douglas, county health department director, who appeared at the meeting telephonically.
“Our goal is to conduct case investigations and require a quarantine and isolation when a person tests positive or is exposed to COVID-19,” Douglas said. “Our order at the health department is not a suggestion; it’s not optional. We require all individuals who have COVID-19 or have been exposed to COVID-19 contact with the positive COVID-19 case, that they stay home away from others.”
Amber Wilkins, the mother of a high school student who had been placed on quarantine, questioned the efficacy of the quarantine and said the health department advised her that the quarantine was just a “recommendation” and that “in general, the kids who are being quarantined are not getting sick,” said Wilkins.
Instead, she suggested a simple notification by the school regarding “close contact” and that parents keep an eye on their children and keep them home if they show symptoms of sickness. She said keeping the students out of school when they are healthy is harming their education.
“He needs to be at school,” Wilkins said. “These healthy kids need to be at school. They are not spreading it kid to kid.”
Douglas explained how the quarantine process works and that anyone who has been within close contact with an infected person should quarantine because the virus is contagious for two days before showing effects of sickness and asymptomatic people can also spread the virus as well.
“This is why those that have been exposed and who are not symptomatic or sick are quarantined,” Douglas said. He added he was quarantined previously in the same fashion after having close contact but without any symptoms or positive test. “That’s what we are required to do.”
On the night of the board meeting, the health department advised of 26 new positive tests for COVID-19 in Graham County, increasing the “active” cases to 140 countywide.
Mark Curley also spoke during the “Call to the Public” of the agenda and said while COVID-19 is “a dangerous deal for a lot of people,” he questioned the quarantined process when none of the siblings or other household members are quarantined in the process and that the students should be in school.
“We can make sense of this procedure,” Curley said. “Right now, nobody has a clue of why it’s happening; why people are being sent home (on) quarantine. I’ve got a grandson who hasn’t been sick. He’s been home three days. I don’t get what we’re doing here.”
The board also expressed their own feelings regarding allowing quarantined students to return to school, with board members J.J. Alder, Shawn Wright, and Clint Colvin expressed their desire to see the quarantined children back in school.
Board member Alder expressed his disdain with recent involvement with the county health department involving his daughter and sister, who both ended up under quarantine protocol after a trip where it was doubtful she was within “close contact” with a person who tested positive.
“I have no faith whatsoever in our county health department for personal reasons and the school reasons,” Alder said.
“We cannot trust them . . . I will not follow one thing that they say.”
Board member Wright questioned what the school would do if a parent defied the health department’s quarantine orders and brought their child back to school instead. He added that even if a child is quarantined from school they still end up out in public with the rest of their family.
Rickert advised that with the new quarantine guidelines the school can either refuse to admit the student, return the student to their regular schedule, or isolate the student with supervision. Previously, the only avenue the school district believed they had was to refuse to admit the student.
“I think that we can preserve the best interest of our students without having to only take option one,” Rickert said.
He said while he realizes that high school students haven’t always worn masks correctly at school when they were mandated all the time last year, if they needed to wear them temporarily to allow them in school they would wear them correctly.
“Based on the information that we received from the county health department about the fact that, yes, students who properly wear masks are not a health risk to those students who they are in close contact with . . .
Board member Melissa Batty spoke emotionally about how COVID-19 has hit her family with the loss of her brother to the virus.
“Because of the quick action of the county health department in isolating – doing the contact tracing and finding out who had contact and tried to find out where this all started – because of their quick action and quarantine of the people who did have the contact that strain of the virus doesn’t exist here anymore,” Batty said. “I’m so grateful because it’s (the strain of virus) is a horrible one. Very horrible. So, I appreciate the hard work that they did to stop that from spreading. The one that we have now is highly contagious, not as deadly but still highly contagious.”
Batty said her main concern is that while children who are exposed aren’t likely to get sick, to stop the spread a quarantine is necessary to stop the spread to others.
“We have students throughout this valley who have parents in the hospital in the ICU because their kid was exposed to COVID and they gave it on over to their parent,” Batty said. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I have.”
Board member Colvin said he supported having sick students stay at home and others who have been quarantined to allow to be back if they wear a mask. He said the virus isn’t going away and that the board and school have to learn how to deal with it.
“We gotta live with this stuff,” Colvin said. “I would not want to be in this lady’s (Batty) shoes right here, but there’s other diseases out there that we all have to deal with. But because of this COVID, none of them are being recognized. The kids need an education . . . But us, as a district, we gotta be able to do something. It’s our school.”
School Board Chairman Troy Thygerson recounted his own bout with COVID-19 last year and how even health workers were afraid to assist him while he was in the hospital. He did thank all the healthcare workers for helping him at a time he questioned if he would make it through.
“With that being said, I’m also an educator and I love having kids in school,” Thygerson said. “Ninety-six percent of our parents want their children in school and we provide that option . . . The bottom line is we need to have kids here and I appreciate what everybody had to say tonight . . .”
Rickert advised that he would immediately work with the district’s principals to get those quarantined back in school and will address parents’ concerns over quarantined students returning to school.
“We will be responsive, we will be flexible, we will listen to people, we will treat everybody with understanding and caring,” Rickert said. “I think that as long as we continue to do that, we can work through challenges like this one without having to get to the point where people are refusing to keep their kids home or demonstrating on the schoolhouse steps.”
According to a Facebook post from the Pima School District, the governing board will meet on Monday at 6 p.m. to discuss the new COVID quarantine guidelines plan. The meeting is open to the public for those who wish to share their concerns, comments, and support. If approved, the district will immediately implement the plan.