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Arizona school districts facing COVID-19 outbreaks as more students return to the classroom

Ventilator use, inpatient admissions and intensive care beds for patients with coronavirus have all gone up nearly 40% or more in the last two weeks.

PHOENIX — COVID-19 cases are steadily rising in Arizona. 

Ventilator use, inpatient admissions and intensive care beds for patients with coronavirus have all gone up nearly 40% or more in the last two weeks.

The numbers concerning as more students around the state continue to return to schools. 

Team 12 reached out to school districts, county health officials and the state as the virus has already made its way into the classroom. 

Arcadia High School reports 2 positive COVID-19 cases

Officials with Arcadia High School in Phoenix said two students tested positive for COVID-19. 

A letter sent to students and parents on Monday said the "Maricopa County Department of Public Health has identified an outbreak of COVID-19 at Arcadia High School."

The letter continued to say that the department defines an outbreak at a school as two or more students or staff who have tested positive within a 14-day period and could have had close contact with others, don't live in the same home and were not identified as close contacts of each other. 

School officials said they are working closely with public health officials to "identify close contacts of the individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 to prevent further spread of the disease."

If anyone has been identified as a close contact, they will receive a separate notification from the school and will be required to stay home from school for 14 days. 

Anyone who tests positive or is required to quarantine will not be permitted on campus until the quarantine period has expired.

School officials asked students, parents and staff to remain vigilant about wearing masks, distancing, hand washing and recognize and report symptoms of illness to our school nurse.

“We all want to go back to normal, but the truth is we are living in abnormal times and we can’t just go back to school with full classrooms,” said Arcadia High School senior Laney Sir. 

“Yeah, it’s two kids but there could be more and now these kids have to stay home for 14 days and isolate. It’s just gonna keep happening unless we do something different than say 'Let’s open up the school.'”  

Arcadia joins schools like Chaparral and Cactus Shadows high schools. The Cave Creek Unified School District confirmed with 12 News last week that six students tested positive for the virus and sent 100 into quarantine.

Less than a week into in-person learning at San Tan Foothills High School in Pinal County, three students and three teachers tested positive leading to health officials to shut down the school.

Marcy Flanagan, the executive director for Maricopa County Public Health, told 12 News that school districts in the county have seen 21 outbreaks, involving 77 positive cases. Nineteen schools with outbreaks remain open. 

“They’re required to report to public health when they have two or more COVID-19 positive cases that don’t live in the same household. That’s considered an outbreak,” said Flanagan. 

“We are basing all of our general recommendations on the models the school should be in on benchmarks set by the state.”  

According to Maricopa County Public Health, 66% of cases involve students and 34% involve faculty. Flanagan would not tell 12 News which districts involved cases. 

"Every school is going to be different, those (state) benchmarks were put in place as guidelines for schools to ultimately make the decision. Other factors that are going to be involved in other mitigation efforts the school can put in place," said Flanagan.

What about contract tracing? 

Maricopa County Public Health said schools will notify the county if there is a case. The county will then create a "line list." 

"The line list will look at a staff or student and all of their close contacts. Once they identify close contacts, where an individual is within 6 feet of a positive case for more than 10 minutes, the school will add that to the line list and give it back to the county," said Flanagan. 

The school and county will work hand-in-hand to identify possible contacts. 

Maricopa County Public Health has weekly webinars with superintendents and school boards they say all school districts are welcomed to participate in. 

Flanagan says schools are reporting both COVID-19 cases as well as upper respiratory issues they are having at school. 

"I can assure parents, if they have a student that attends that school and there was an exposure, they will hear direct communication from that school," said Flanagan.

What's the difference between San Tan Foothills and other schools with COVID-19 outbreaks?

"We have biweekly calls with health officers. Pinal County walked through with us the process," said Flanagan. 

Three students and three faculty don't sound like a lot but Flanagan says Pinal County officials said the exposure was far-reaching. 

"More than 60% of the staff and several hundred students were exposed."

Team 12 reached out to the Arizona Department of Health Services with questions by email and phone but the state continues to deny or ignore our requests for interviews.

In an email to 12 News, ADHS said that Maricopa and Pinal Counties Public Health Departments serve as boots on the ground for public health concerns in their communities and serve as experts on local conditions. 

ADHS says health departments, "interact directly with schools and districts to provide guidance and support for outbreaks, including investigations and contact tracing, though ADHS can and will provide counties with help upon request." 

According to the state:

"ADHS Emergency Measure 2020-03 requires schools, child care establishments, and shelters to report to their local health departments, within 24 hours of identification, any outbreaks of COVID-19. An outbreak is defined as two or more laboratory-confirmed cases who are epidemiologically linked, do not share a household, and were not identified as close contacts of each other in another setting during standard case investigation or contact tracing. 

This emergency measure further requires schools, child care establishments, and shelters to report to current staff, faculty, students, and students' parents and guardians if an outbreak due to COVID-19 occurs within a given facility's population.

We encourage school districts to work closely with their local departments of health on mitigation plans and responses while they follow the Arizona Department of Education's Roadmap for Reopening Schools. The ADHS Schools Toolkit recommends that county-specific public health benchmarks fall within the moderate or minimal spread category in all three benchmarks for two weeks to provide hybrid learning (virtual and in-person). Developed at the request of the education community, the benchmarks are intended as a guide, in consultation with local health departments, to help school leaders determine when it is safe to return to in-person instruction. The Schools Toolkit notes that decisions related to outbreaks should be made in close coordination with the local health department and that both the context of local spread as well as the school’s mitigation practices should be considered."