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WHITERIVER — Jennifer Plath, superintendent of Whiteriver School District, has announced a “pause” in classes due to the surging numbers of COVID-19 case numbers.

“The White Mountain Apache Tribe has an Emergency Operations Facebook page that shows the case counts are increasing significantly every day,” she said. “We haven’t reached a point yet where we couldn’t staff a school, but we’re on the edge.”

Because Monday is a holiday for the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and students do not have school on Fridays, Plath has indicated that the “pause” for in-school instruction will be from Tuesday, Jan. 18 through Thursday, Jan. 20.

“This will allow for a ten-consecutive day school and community wellness reset,” she wrote in a press release

COVID-19 cases are soaring, Plath said, largely due to how contagious the omicron variant is.

“The dashboard they (WMAT) posted on Wednesday (Jan. 13) said they are up to 525 active positive cases, and the number of daily positive increases was 139,” she said.

With the case numbers increasing so quickly, the tribe has called for a two-week “shelter in place” that started last night. The mandate will be in effect until the morning of Thursday, Jan. 27, due to an increase of 392 new COVID-19 cases over the past five days, Plath said.

All non-essential indoor and outdoor gatherings are prohibited on the reservation, and a curfew is in effect from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Residents are asked to stay at home, except for school, work or obtaining essential supplies or medical care.

About 10,600 tribal members have had their first and second doses of the vaccine, but Emergency Operations has indicated that the increase in cases is because omicron is so very contagious. As a precautionary measure, schools in Whiteriver will be shuttered for the brief reset to combat those growing numbers.

WUSD will only need to make up three days of school due to the “pause,” Plath added. The make-up days will be held on Friday, March 4, April 28 and May 16, which are scheduled snow days.

Alchesay High School Varsity athletics will be held next week with no spectators. Games will be streamed so people can watch at home. Junior varsity, freshman and junior high games are cancelled for next week. Other school-sponsored events to be held throughout the week/weekend will be held as scheduled with no spectators.

WUSD is implementing this shut-down for the welfare of students, staff and the community.

Plath recommended that people follow the school district’s media page for updates, and check the WMAT Emergency Operations Facebook page for news about how COVID-19 is affecting the tribe.

“Case counts across the nation are surging beyond what most hospitals can handle,” Plath said. “This is a statewide and national concern.”

Anyone who has questions or concerns about the school “pause” is asked to contract the school district office, or their student’s school.

Wednesday the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 18,783 new COVID-19 cases in the state with six new deaths. On Wednesday they also reported 229 new cases in Navajo County and 66 new cases in Apache County.

Thursday there were 18,573 new cases reported statewide with a staggering 346 new cases in Navajo County and 156 in Apache County. AZDHS reported 10 Arizonans died from COVID-19 Thursday but there were no deaths in Navajo and Apache counties.

There have been 29,629 total cases of COVID-19 in Navajo County compared to a total of 17, 426 cases in Apache County since the start of the pandemic.

AZDHS reports a total of 1,542,936 COVID-19 cases have occurred in the state since the start of the pandemic and 25,002 Arizonans have died from COVID-19.

Navajo County has a low 44.9% vaccination rate against COVID-19 while Apache County is down to a 42.6% vaccination rate.

Apache County has the second lowest vaccination rate behind La Paz County at 41.7%.

Statewide 66.6% of Arizonans have been vaccinated, according to AZDHS.

Becky Knapp is a lifelong journalist who has worked at newspapers in Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Florida. Reach the reporter at bknapp@wmicentral.com

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