New guidelines support in-person classes for most schools, even when the COVID-19 virus remains widespread in the community.

Months of distance learning and frequent shifts back to online classes when cases crop up on campus have cost students months of academic gains and caused a rise in depression, anxiety and isolation for many students, according to national studies.

Moreover, teachers are just starting to get vaccinated, according to Bryan Layton, assistant Navajo County manager.

“Teachers became eligible for vaccination when the County opened to Tier 1 b and have been being vaccinated since,” he said in an email. “Many of our reservation unified school districts are reporting 90-100% vaccination rates for their teachers and staff. We do not have exact number for our off-reservation districts, but feedback we are getting indicates that we may have 40-70% vaccinated and that teachers and staff who want to be vaccinated have been able to receive a vaccine. However, we are hearing that some staff in some districts are hesitant or refuse to be vaccinated.”

Schools in the White Mountains have been buffeted by the pandemic, suffering big enrollment declines and costly loses in state funding due to both the loss of students and lower funding for distance learning classes.

However, the federal Centers for Disease Control has issued new guidelines that provide clearer recommendations when it comes to remaining in class — even when cases crop up on campus and the virus remains widespread in the community.

That’s crucial for Apache and Navajo Counties, still plagued by some of the highest rates of spread in the country — despite big decreases in the past several weeks.

National data bases still list both Apache and Navajo county as being at “extremely high risk” for the spread of the virus. The infection rate is 45 per 100,000 in Navajo County, with an average of 50 new cases in the past week, as of Tuesday. Apache County was in about the same condition, with 51 cases per 100,000 — or about 37 new cases per day.

The shifts in and out of distance learning have strained parents, teachers and students, which has been reflected in declining test scores as well as reports of depression, anxiety and isolation for many students.

Both counties remain in the COVID-19 red zone, according to the state’s school benchmarks, although those numbers generally lag a couple of weeks behind the latest case rates.

The spread of the virus has declined significantly from its January peak. In the past two weeks, Navajo County’s hospitalization rate has dropped 11% and the percentage of positive tests has dropped 19%. The county’s still reporting an average of 50 new cases a day, but that’s down 35% from two weeks ago. An estimated 14% of residents have been infected since the pandemic begin, resulting in 15,263 cases. Close to 14% have now been vaccinated – which should mean more than a quarter of the county’s residents are now protected against the virus. The county continues to report about 3 new deaths each day, which hasn’t changed much from the peak in early January.

Both counties are considered at “extremely high risk” of infection, despite the decline in new cases in the past two weeks.

New, more clear-cut federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines suggest that even when the virus is widespread in the community, schools can generally operate safely if they enforce universal mask wearing and take other precautions that include ensuring ample ventilation in the classroom and avoiding large-group activities that bring a lot of students and faculty together. Those guidelines don’t require widespread vaccination of teachers. Apache and Navajo County are just starting to offer vaccinations to teachers, having been slower than some other counties to work through the higher risk groups — including front-line healthcare workers and nursing home residents.

After months of dealing with the pandemic, experts have gained confidence in how districts can open schools safely — even without vaccinating teachers and even when the virus remains widespread in the community. Although cases regularly crop up on campus, the evidence so far shows that schools can avoid spread of the virus on campus or back out into the community. The overwhelming majority of cases detected on campus are connected to family and community contacts, rather than on-campus contacts. The big exception would be group activities without adequate masking and protection, including things like sports tournaments.

The federal Centers for Disease Control has issued new recommendations for opening schools safely based on a growing body of research that shows very limited spread of the virus in schools. Roughly half of the nation’s children remain locked into distance learning, despite growing evidence of the emotional and academic toll the months of online classes and isolation has taken on students.

Both the Trump Administration and the Biden Administration have emphasized the need to return to in-person classes as soon as possible. The new guidelines have simply become more clear cut, based on a growing body of evidence on how schools have fared in the past year.

The latest guidelines say that precautions like universal mask wearing can allow K-8 schools to operate safely even if teachers aren’t vaccinated and the virus remains widespread in the community. The guideline defines “widespread” presence of the virus as a positive test rate of 10% and an infection rate of more than 100 cases per 100,000 in the past seven days.

Both Apache and Navajo counties are now just above that threshold when it comes to positive tests and under the threshold when it comes to the infection rate.

The CDC recommendations for safe operation of schools include, universal mask wearing, physical distancing and adequate ventilation in classrooms. Vaccination of faculty and staff isn’t necessary, but adds a big measure of protection.

The guidelines are more cautious for high schools. Studies show that younger children are slow to get infected or spread the virus and much less likely to develop serious symptoms. Teenagers appear nearly as likely as adults to get infected, but far less likely than older adults to get seriously ill. Because high school students have six classes a day and mingle far more students and staff each day, studies have shown high schools are much more likely to develop clusters of cases. The CDC guidelines recommend when the virus is widespread schools can consider scheduling changes to avoid the mixing of high school students or hybrid classes to reduce student contacts in high school when the virus is widespread in the community. The guidelines suggest K-8 schools can operate safely even when the virus is widespread, with precautions like mask wearing.

Outside experts have generally hailed the more clear-cut guidelines, but questioned the continued emphasis on time-consuming effort to disinfect surfaces. Repeated studies have shown that the airborne COVID virus doesn’t live long on surfaces or spread easily by that route. Those studies suggest the huge effort to disinfect surfaces hasn’t had much impact on the rate of spread. However, putting more effort into making sure classrooms are well ventilated and frequently changing filters on the air handlers would likely have a much bigger impact.

The broadest agreement has centered on the need for strictly enforced, universal mask wearing – even after many teachers are vaccinated. Clinical studies show that vaccinations reduce the chance someone will test positive, develop symptoms or suffer serious illness from the virus. But experts aren’t certain someone who has been vaccinated and doesn’t have enough virus in their system to test positive can’t still pass the virus along to others. Tests to answer that question are underway.

So in the meantime, the experts recommend even people who have gotten vaccinated wear masks in group settings.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at

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