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In tiny Winkelman, COVID-19, funding, and safety are all tied together

“Now we’re where we have to make a decision on life and death here," Superintendent Jeff Gregorich said on deciding how to return to schools.

GILA COUNTY, Ariz. — A small school district in southeastern Arizona has been hit hard by the coronavirus.

Hayden-Winkelman Unified School District lost teacher Kim Byrd to COVID-19 last month. Now, four other staff members are currently infected with the virus and six others await test results.

Byrd was teaching a summer class online with two other teachers when she came down with the virus. Those two other teachers also tested positive.

“Our wounds are not healed from losing Kim,” Superintendent Jeff Gregorich said.

Gregorich said the district is teaching remotely until at least September 8th.

“It’s really hard for me to sleep,” Gregorich said. “Now we’re where we have to make a decision on life and death here.”

His concern is not only for his staff, students and community, but others around the state.

"I’m scared for those teachers that are going to go into the classroom and think they can keep themselves safe,” Gregorich said.

Schools are still waiting on guidance to reopen in-person learning from the state.

Those benchmarks coming from the Arizona Department of Health Services are supposed to be released by Aug. 7.

“The most frustrating part of this is these are decisions that should have been made in June and July,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said.

Thomas said teachers are left in limbo right now and need clarity so they can get ready for the year.

"We don’t have a solid ground to plan on,” Thomas said. “It becomes very frustrating and we’re seeing some educators are saying they can’t move into this safely and we’re starting to see resignations.”

Thomas and Gregorich agree educators want to be back in the classroom when it’s safe.

But right now, Gregorich is worried other lives could be on the line.

“My feeling is: at what cost?” Gregorich said.

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