Jon Johnson File Photo/Gila Herald
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – The Safford Unified School District held a special meeting Friday, starting at 7:15 a.m., and voted to continue in-person education despite a recommendation from the health department to consider going back to distance learning.
The board voted 4-1 to continue full, in-person learning, with Julie Cluff casting the lone dissenting vote.
The district held the special meeting due to an increase in COVID-19 cases and at the recommendation of the Graham County Department of Human and Health Services to consider going back to a remote learning system due to state benchmarks. Safford Superintendent A.J. Taylor said the districts were also asked to halt sports as well. To date, neither Pima or Thatcher school districts are reportedly considering going back to distance learning or halting sports at this time.
Graham County Health Department Director Brian Douglas was at the meeting and corroborated the information given and said Safford does not meet two of the three benchmarks for holding in-person learning.
“It is our recommendation for the schools to consider going to a different model,” Douglas said. “It is not a requirement.”
Douglas also advised that the health department would report 30 new COVID-19 cases for Graham County later that day, with 11 coming from Safford and 14 from the San Carlos Apache Tribe.
School Board member Matt Herrington said he felt the school needed to stay open and that it would be more harmful to the students by going to distance learning. He added that there should be specific focused protection for those who are in the categories that are in most danger from the virus and let the others still go to school.
“We cannot continue to flatten the curve for seven months,” he said.
“It’s very clear what the voice of the community is. The state government does not know what is best for us.”
Herrington said it was time to have faith that they would get through the pandemic and to trust in God. He implored his fellow board members to not go against the will of the people again.
Board member Diane Junion said the school needed to find a normalcy and not keep flip-flopping back and forth. She then recommended continuing with in-person education.
The meeting was held at the David M. Player Center for the Arts to accommodate those who wished to appear in front of the governing board and to adhere to social distancing guidelines.
A number of parents spoke against returning to distance learning due to financial hardships or their belief that children need to be in school for their learning. Parents spoke about how their children fell behind during remote learning and how overjoyed they were when they were allowed to return to school. They also advised that parents who choose to send their children to school accept the risk and that there is an online option for those who want to do remote learning.
“When we finally went to in-person learning, my kids were already falling behind,” parent Sarah Bingham said.
Bingham proposed a hybrid option instead of just remote learning and said that her freshman daughter has expressed a desire to drop out of school due to difficulties relating to remote learning.
Parent George Jacobson said his kitchen table is not an atmosphere built for learning and that his children lacked schooling during the remote learning. He advised that his fifth grader could sit at a computer for 10 hours and only get two hours of schooling done and that his second grader was having difficulties with reading. He said when school started back in-person, the second grader’s reading began to improve and he and his wife could go over reading books from the school with him.
”If we go back to online, that’s only going to set him back,”Jacobson said. “The school needs to provide a safe learning environment on their end.”
Former Graham County Clerk of the Superior Court Cindy Woodman told the board that the children suffer more by being made to stay home.
”I value the children of this community more than a disease that has less morbidity to it than the common flu,” Woodman said. “Stay home if you’re sick.”
Safford Superintendent A.J. Taylor told those in attendance that he appreciated them being there and voicing their concerns. He added, however, that a meeting Thursday with the Graham County Department of Health and Human Services, the state metrics regarding benchmarks show Safford being in the red for the first two benchmarks and that all of the counties in Arizona except for Greenlee County are recommended to do a hybrid learning model.
“Everybody wants to get back to normal as soon as we can,” he said. “We are all frustrated by this.”
Taylor said while he does not believe distance learning is effective, he said something has to be done and recommended going to a hybrid learning system while keeping athletics going.
Safford School Board President Mike DeLaO said that while the school was pretty much a safe area even as students spread it among themselves, the problem arises when the children go home and back into the community with the possibility to infect relatives and those who may be more likely to have more adverse affects from the virus.
Board member Julie Cluff said that she noticed that as soon as students were allowed back to school people let their guard down and stopped following precautionary measures, including wearing masks while in public and other Centers for Disease Control measures. Cliff recommended to go to a hybrid learning system and see the results of that and also implored “other” school districts to put out their true numbers of infections and not hide them.
Graham County is the only county in Arizona that does not have a mask mandate, according to Douglas, and while he said masks do reduce the risk he does not recommend a mandate to wear them but simply strongly encourage their use. He advised that he will be reaching out to businesses to continue to have their customers wear masks.
“This is one of the very few things we have to help slow the spread of this,” Douglas said.
Due to the higher numbers, certain businesses that have reopened may also be shuttered again, however, that decision will come from the state through the Arizona Department of Health Services, according to Douglas.
“We’re here for the kids; we’re here for the staff; we’re here for the grandparents,” DeLaO said. “We’re not here to hurt people.”