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Arizona health officials change guidance for in-person learning, but school districts unaware

The change was posted online in a presentation dated Oct. 22, but leaders of school districts say they were unaware of the changes.

FOUNTAIN HILLS, Ariz. — Fountain Hills High School is not experiencing a coronavirus outbreak, according to Fountain Hills USD Superintendent Dr. Kelly Glass. 

The district did, however, decide to move to all-remote learning for 14 days after at least three students and/or staff members tested positive for the coronavirus, according to Glass.

Parents of students at Fountain Hills High School received a letter Tuesday saying that student-athletes and coaches had possibly been exposed to the virus at an out-of-district event last week.

Glass said the district was not notified of the possible exposure until Tuesday, and that is why, despite the exposure taking place last week, parents were not notified until Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, some of the test results of those possibly exposed came back positive. At that point, the district closed the school immediately, according to Glass.

This led to a situation one parent described as “panic in the hallways,” as students left the school or called parents for a ride.

“[My daughter] was scared,” said FHHS parent Lara Bush-Pensy. 

“She wanted to wash everything that had been in school, and she just went in the shower.”

The decision to move away from in-person learning comes as the Arizona Department of Health Services changed guidelines for the switch between in-person, remote and hybrid learning.

RELATED: Guidelines for keeping classrooms open during COVID-19 revised by ADHS

The change was posted online in a presentation dated Oct. 22, but leaders of school districts say they were unaware of the changes.

Glass said she received no word from the state, but rather learned of the state’s changes from a colleague, a fellow superintendent in another district.

“I’m not going to throw them under the bus,” Glass said. 

“They are there for us to provide guidance every time we call. “It’s just a very new situation, and, as a superintendent, I would like a little more proactive approach to getting the information out there so that we know what we are doing.”

The change the state made appears on page six of a presentation that can be found by navigating to the AZDHS coronavirus dashboard, then clicking on schools, then clicking on “safely returning to in-person instruction.” 

Even then, the new presentation, dated Oct. 22, appears the same or very similar to a previous presentation. Anyone looking for the change would likely need to have known there was a change in the first place, and even superintendents did not know there had been a change.

As for the change itself, prior guidance said that schools should consider a hybrid or fully remote model of education if any of the three benchmarks for cases, percent positivity, or COVID-like illness were rose to the “substantial” level. 

New guidance says districts only need to consider a switch if ALL benchmarks are at the “substantial” level.

AZDHS Director Dr. Cara Christ explained in a blog post Wednesday that this gives districts more stability and will result in fewer changes, especially in less populated districts where two or three cases can result in large percentage swings.

“It sort of feels like a patchwork quilt, or swiss cheese, maybe, that has a lot of holes in it. That may be a better analogy,” Bush-Pensy said Wednesday. 

“I don’t even feel like I can make a fully informed decision or opinion because the information is not solid.”