White Mountains schools have mostly returned to in-person classes while complying with a new state law that bars mask mandates on campus and any policies that take into account whether a student or staff member have been vaccinated.
Schools still urge parents to keep students home if they have COVID-19 symptoms and will send a student with those symptoms to the nurse’s office — and home if the nurse believes the student has COVID-19 or a test comes up positive.
However, the ban on mask mandates mostly flies in the face of the latest recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Public health officials say that a surge in cases caused by the highly infectious delta variant can only be controlled through a big increase in vaccination rates — and a return to mask wearing indoors in settings where people can’t socially distance.
The surge in recent cases has been especially pronounced among children, who have extremely low vaccination rates.
However, recent changes in state law have handcuffed school districts when it comes to masks, vaccines and other COVID-19 precautions — like quarantine.
The Blue Ridge school district and others are asking parents and visitors to minimize visits to campus and say they will screen students for symptoms, ask parents to take students home if symptoms develop and maintain social distancing wherever possible.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has warned school districts they must abide by a new state law that doesn’t actually take effect until Sept. 29.
Nonetheless, Ducey and some state legislative leaders have threatened to withhold funding from districts who do impose a mask mandate or policies that differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated students.
Several Valley school districts have already said that they will adhere to the CDC recommendation and require students to wear masks indoors in situations where they can’t socially distance.
The FDA has approved vaccinations for students 12 to 18, but since the vaccines are still in the “emergency use” category – schools can’t require them like they do for things like measles, polio and others.
The FDA is considering authorizing use for children younger than 12 and is expected to move several of the existing vaccines out of the “emergency use” category later this year.
At that point, schools could in theory require students to get vaccinated just as they do now for measles, mumps, rubella, polio and other viral illnesses.
But for now, only about 15% of people under 20 statewide have been vaccinated, including about 15% of those in Apache and Navajo, according to state figures.
Most district say they will still quarantine students and staff with symptoms or a positive test.
But students and faculty who qualify as close contacts can chose whether to quarantine — whether or not they’ve been vaccinated.
A close contact is someone who spent more than 15 minutes within three feet of the infected person over a 24-hour period.
That probably includes everyone in an elementary school classroom and people sitting next to each other in class in the upper grades.
Some district have said they intend to require unvaccinated students who have a close contact with an infected student to quarantine – but not those students who have had their shots.
However, that policy could run afoul of the new state law barring any policy that takes into account vaccination status.
The spread of the highly infectious Delta variant prompted the CDC to advise schools to re-impose mask mandates in doors and in close-contact group settings.
The Delta variant spreads at least twice as easily as the original strain and inconclusive evidence suggests it may more readily infect children and may cause more serious disease.
Public health officials overwhelmingly agree that the vaccines are safe and highly effective — even against the Delta strain.
That means universal vaccination is the best possible way to end the pandemic.
However, the vaccination campaign has slowed dramatically, especially among children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics this week issued a statement urging schools to encourage vaccinations for all students 12 to 18 and require children to wear masks in high-risk settings.
Universal masking remains the best way to protect students and prevent schools from generating clusters of cases that spread back out into the community, concluded the Academy representing most the nation’s pediatricians.
“Universal masking is the best and most effective strategy to create consistent messages, expectations, enforcement and compliance without the added burden of needing to monitor vaccination status,” the Academy of Pediatrics said in a statement.
The number of infections among children is increasing as Delta spreads, accounting for roughly 22% of the cases nationwide in recent weeks — compared to just 3% a year ago. Some 4.2 million have been infected since the pandemic began, but the 358 deaths among children account for only about one quarter of one percent of all deaths.
The long-term impact of infection among children remains unclear.
Some reports suggest that in the US the Delta strain is hitting younger people in the US much harder than the earlier strains.
Vaccination rates are dangerously low in people younger than 40 nationwide — including less than about one-third of Gila County residents.
People aged 18 to 49 accounted for 22% of hospitalized patients in January but now account for 41%.
This raises fresh concerns about clusters of cases on school campuses spreading to parents and relatives at home.
The non-reservation portions of Apache and Navajo County have extremely low vaccination rates — especially among young adults.
Only 20% of Navajo County residents aged 20 to 34 have had even a single shot and 25% of those aged 35 to 44.
That means students who get infected in school can easily bring the virus home to family members, most of whom haven’t been vaccinated.
In southern Apache County, 22% of those under 20, 16% of those 20-34 and 20% of those 35 to 54 have gotten at least one shot, according to the state department of health services.
In the meantime, COVID-19 cases have risen by a daily average of 131% nationally, with big increases concentrated in the least-vaccinated states.
Delta now accounts for more than 80% of new cases nationally.
Arizona cases have risen 86%, reflecting a vaccination rate that’s below the national average — but higher than the worst-hit states. Deaths have risen 104% and hospitalizations by 54%, while tests administered are up just 31%.
In Navajo County, new cases have been averaging 27 per day — or 24 per 100,000. Apache County has been reporting about 12 cases per day — a rate of 17 per 100,000.
The infection rate is much lower than in January — but much higher than a month ago.
Navajo County’s rate has risen 16% as a daily average in the past two weeks and Apache County’s has risen 48%.
A growing number of schools have defied the state’s ban on mask mandates, including Osborn Elementary, Roosevelt Elementary, Washington Elementary, Phoenix Union and Phoenix Elementary.
Ironically, previous studies have shown that high schools and middle schools can much more easily spawn clusters of infection, since teenagers are more prone to infection and have far more contacts as they move from class to class during the day.
Ducey’s office blasted schools that impose mask mandates or adopt policies that take into account a students vaccination status.
“They should spend less time on virtue signaling, encouraging students to break the law, and more time on encouraging people to get the vaccine, said spokesman C.J. Karamargin, according to Capitol Media Service’s Howard Fisher.
It’s unclear how the governor would punish districts who adopt a mask mandate.
One teacher has already sued to prevent Phoenix Union from adopting a mask mandate.
The governor and legislative leaders have discussed whether the state could withhold funding for defiant districts.