PHOENIX (AP) — With COVID-19 cases dipping and teachers getting vaccinated, some Arizona school districts are looking to return to in-person learning as early as next month.
The Osborn School District in Phoenix, which has been doing virtual learning full-time since the start of the school year, will welcome students back into classrooms March 30. A survey conducted by the district found that 90% of their staff have already been vaccinated. Ylenia Aguilar, president of the district's governing board, said they expect that number to be closer to 95% in March. She knows the district has been very lucky.
“We've been able to work and partner up and had access to multiple vaccination opportunities, which we know is not the case for other school districts in other areas, specifically rural areas," Aguilar said. “We are ready to open.”
Aguilar spoke at a news briefing Wednesday alongside State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman.
The state Department of Education's top official promised to help school districts across the state safely transition back to in-person learning. But that would likely not look the same as before. The state wants to make sure mitigation measures such as plexiglass between desks and up-to-date ventilation systems are in place, Hoffman said. Also, students and teachers must continue to practice hand-washing, masking up and social distancing when possible.
A return to campus would look more like a patchwork around the state. Some schools, such as those on the Navajo Nation, have already declared they will not be resuming in-person instruction because of the virus' devastating impact, Hoffman said.
“I want to support schools at every stage, so that when they do resume in-person learning, they are doing so safely with mitigation strategies in place, enforced, and with the support of their families, students, and teachers,” Hoffman said.
Dr. Jason Vargas, president of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said there is more scientific evidence that children are not the main source of community transmission of the virus. For districts that are ready, he believes a return to school can be done safely.
“For children without significant health problems and with proper mitigation strategies, the risk is relatively low," Vargas said.
Arizona officials on Wednesday reported 1,310 additional confirmed COVID-19 cases and 43 deaths as coronavirus-related hospitalizations and seven-day rolling averages for daily new cases and daily deaths continued to drop.
The latest figures reported by the state Department of Health Services increased Arizona's pandemic totals to 811,968 cases and 15,693 deaths.
According to data from The COVID-Tracking Project, the rolling average of daily new cases declined over the past two weeks, dropping from 3,169.3 on Feb. 9 to 1,559.7 on Tuesday while the rolling average of daily deaths dropped from 132 to 112.
Hospitalizations also continue to drop, with the state's coronavirus dashboard reporting 1,449 COVID-19 patients occupying inpatient beds as of Tuesday, down from the pandemic peak of 5,082 on Jan. 11.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Arizona continues to ramp up expansion of vaccine access. More than 1 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine. At least 330,000 have gotten both doses. But some doses have had to go by the wayside.
Records show that over 220 vaccine doses in Arizona have been spoiled or wasted since the rollout began in December. In documents obtained from the Arizona Department of Health Services, a dozen health care providers from mostly smaller counties reported, as required, vials that were unusable or never administered. The spoiled doses were primarily the Moderna vaccine.
Most reported single-digit losses. However, the La Paz Health Department sustained the biggest with 100 doses of Moderna vaccine ending up spoiled, according to a Jan. 11 vaccine return form. Northern Cochise Community Hospital reported 70 doses lost on Dec. 31 because they had not been properly stored.
None of the wasted doses involved the state-run sites at State Farm Stadium in Glendale or Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The state Department of Health Services say “this type of waste is unacceptable.”