WHITERIVER — The White Mountain Apache Tribe made an Emergency Declaration on March 12, 2020, as the severity of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) became increasingly obvious. However, for the Tribe, they began monitoring the situation way before this declaration. The Tribe’s Division of Health Program (Health Program) was already tracking the virus in December and soon joined the Arizona Department of Health’s Daily AH Partner Call. The Indian Health Service (IHS) even gave the Tribe’s Health Board their preparation response to this virus at the beginning of the year.
The Tribe’s Health Program monitored this virus as the ‘high risk’ population associated with this virus paralleled the Tribe’s realities in terms of health disparities. As research and surveillance on this virus began showing individuals most at risk, the Tribe’s Health Department soon realized this virus could potentially mean bad news for the people of the reservation. The Tribe soon began implementing mitigation efforts to ensure its impact would be minimal.
Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood shared this belief and made the novel coronavirus the focal point of her March Supervisors Meeting when all tribal departments were instructed to make contingency plans for their departments in light of the rapid spread of COVID-19 outside of the reservation. After several other municipalities made an Emergency Declaration, the Chairwoman made the decision to make an Emergency Declaration with the health and safety of her people as her top priority. This Emergency Declaration activated the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to act as the Tribe’s official response team to COVID-19.
The EOC operates out of the Tribe’s Fire Department Administrative Trailer in Whiteriver and is headed by longtime Firefighter Carlos Valadez. There are a total of 11 staff members under his command. There is an Infectious Disease Control Officer, Public Information Officer, Logistics Chief, Operations Chief, Planning Chief, Finance Chief, Policy Coordinator, EOC Liaison, and GIS Technician. All of the EOC staff are professionals from the Tribe’s workforce who carry out there duties to the highest caliber
For the EOC, April 1, 2020, will forever go down in infamy as this is the day the Tribe received its first confirmed case of COVID-19 call from the State of Arizona’s Epidemiologist As soon as the Tribe’s Health Director and EOC Liasion, Jessica Rudalfo, put down her phone and made the painful announcement that COVID-19 had made its way to our homelands, the entire room at the EOC went quiet. Immediately thereafter Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood made her way to the radio station and notified her people of the arrival of COVID-19 to our land. She assured the people that we can get through this pandemic with prayers.
A typical day of the EOC begins at 8 a.m. and starts with a huddle going over the day’s objective. At 9 a.m. they join a conference call with Arizona Department of Health Services reviewing the state’s response to the pandemic. At 9:30 they host a conference call with the Tribe’s directors and supervisors who represent essential services of the Tribe. The team has also established a joint Incident Command Center with IHS and have a daily update call at 11 a.m. covering a wide range of issues. Three times a week they join a conference call with Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs. The list of calls ends with a 1 p.m. conference call with members of the Tribal Council. As they participate in these important calls it’s not uncommon to find each of them juggling many other tasks. The Tribe and EOCs story wouldn’t be possible without the leadership of the Incident Commander, diligence of the EOC staff, collaboration of all tribal programs, and guidance of the Tribal Council, all of whom serve with the wellbeing of the Tribe and our neighbors at the forefront.
PINETOP-LAKESIDE – With Gov. Doug Ducey’s announcement last week regarding the general reenergizing of Arizona’s economy, Mayor Stephanie Irwin and Town Manager Keith Johnson concluded the May 7 virtual council meeting with Pinetop-Lakeside’s plan for reopening.
Irwin thanked everyone for supporting the local business community and encouraged them to continue to support the small businesses and the local restaurants who are still unable to open to full capacity. She asked citizens to be cautious, “wear their masks in public and to wash their hands.”
“We are looking at a timeline of opening,” said Irwin.
Johnson announced that the town has been reviewing the White House and CDC Guidelines’ Three Phase Opening of the Economy which states that each phase is supposed to be implemented after two weeks of reduced positive tests. He said they have also reviewed Ducey’s extended Stay Home, Stay Safe and Stay Connected Executive order which ends on May 15.
Johnson said the town believes that since Ducey did not fully implement Phase One that it is likely he will complete the balance of Phase One on May 16. According to White House Guidelines, this would extend opening of the state to June 1.
Ducey’s gradual opening of Phase One stated that beginning May 8 cosmetologists and barber shops could resume appointment-based services “as long as they establish and implement safety protocols and best practices, including face coverings for employees and customers.” As of May 11, restaurant and coffee shops may resume dine-in services with physical distancing measures and they must adhere to the additional guidelines to keep customers and employees safe.
Johnson said the town’s tentative plan is to open town hall, public works and the library on June 1. Hours for the library will be reduced by closing half an hour early on regular days and it will be closed on Saturdays. The plan is to operate with a reduced staff.
For additional protection a plexiglass barrier, similar to ones being used in stores, will be installed at town hall and the library.
“The Visitor Center brings in a lot of people,” said Johnson, “a lot of foot traffic at town hall.” He said there are concerns of people coming in that could be asymptomatic but they are tentatively waiting for the governor’s announcement on the current extended order before they know how to or what kind of restrictions to implement for that area.
Park ramadas, bathrooms and the fishing dock at Woodland Lake Park were slated to open on Friday, May 8 with restrictions. Reservations for ramadas will not be required until summer but instructions will be posted regarding their use. Groups will be limited to ten people and physical distancing is to be practiced. Users will be asked to clean the area before and after use of the facility. Bathroom use is limited to one person at a time.
Plans for various town meetings have been set but Johnson cautioned they could change depending on conditions. The May 21 council meeting will be virtual and not open to the public, but the June 4 meeting will be open for public access. The budget hearing which was scheduled for May 27 has been moved to June 9 at 9 a.m and an additional budget hearing has been set for June 24 at 9 a.m. The final budget hearing and approval will take place during the July 16 regular council meeting.
The Unisource Franchise Election FAQ sheet will be presented to council during the June 18 regular meeting. The question as to whether a franchise will be granted to UNS Gas, Inc. will be submitted to the voters of the Town of Pinetop-Lakeside on the August 4, 2020 election ballot.
Planning and Zoning will resume their June 11 meeting in council chambers and it will be open to the public.
The bottom line on reopening for the town is that everything is subject to change. Johnson’s message for residents is to keep up with town information by reading the “Talk of the Town” weekly newsletter as well as Pinetop-Lakeside’s social media pages.
PINETOP-LAKESIDE — Short-term, school districts statewide have created graduation ceremonies to incorporate social distancing in the the time of COVID-19.
Long-term impacts of the pandemic to school districts across the country are still unfolding.
For Blue Ridge Unified School District (BRUSD) #32, coronavirus comes like an extra weight on top of last year’s failed Override Election. Art and Physical Education programs are being cut and some classified positions will be eliminated in the fall of 2020-2021.
“We are entering an unprecedented period of challenges and uncertainty,” says Blue Ridge Superintendent Michael L. Wright. “Despite all that, planning for the 2020-21 school year must move forward. Therefore, several essential district updates must be shared.”
The upcoming changes were communicated to teachers and staff in a letter from Wright. “First, given the failure of the 2019 Override Election, a 5% reduction in district spending, or $600,000 dollars’ worth of cuts must occur inside the 2020-2021 budget,” he writes. “Moreover, the current crisis has complicated budgeting matters owing to its impact on national, state, and local economies.”
Student enrollment is a key factor for school budget planning, no matter the district size or location. With students working from home, there could be an exodus to online enrollment in the fall which could have devastating impacts on school funding which rely on student enrollment numbers.
“… For more than a decade, we have experienced a steady decline within local student enrollment, resulting in less funding each year,” explains Wright. “… it’s unclear whether we will gain or lose students as a result of this tragedy. Secondly, the Arizona State lawmakers anticipate the Fiscal Year 2021 will suffer a revenue shortfall of at least 1.6 billion dollars, or significantly more.”
“… Arizona schools are funded on a per-student, current year basis, revenue used to support students is unknown until well after the start of each School Year,” continues Wright. “Thus, budgets are created well in advance of knowing several critical elements, including the number of students schools, must serve, making staffing decisions difficult to determine.”
Potential drops in student enrollment, Covid-19 consequences and a failed 2019 Override add up to critical decisions for the Blue Ridge school district as “… virtually every department and campus will be affected by our efforts to balance our budget,” says Wright.
“The reorganization of the district office is an example of our consolidation efforts, among other things, the removal of two positions, including the Director of Curriculum, full-time printshop support, elimination of software, salary reduction, as well combining responsibilities assumed by the district office staff. In total, the district office removed approximately $175, 000 dollars from its budget.”
Wright confirmed that all Blue Ridge campuses are facing reductions to staffing and some student programs. “Despite significant changes, schools retained core academic subjects, many advanced placement classes, most fine arts programs, the Fab Lab, all CTE classes, and all girls and boys athletics. However, eliminated are physical education and art courses at the elementary and high school.”
Overall, there will be fewer special courses and electives said Wright who also assured that “The administration made every effort to preserve as many jobs as possible,” which resulted in 15 jobs being saved.
Some teachers will be transferring to schools with “openings consistent with their certification and experience.” Some classified employees were also moved into new roles or locations.