County falls short of school COVID benchmarks

Pinal County dashboard Aug. 27, 2020


Thursday’s numbers for COVID-19 mitigation benchmarks were one step forward and one step back for schools wanting to bring students back to campus.

Pinal County had already achieved one of the three recommended benchmarks and today learned it had half of another. But a third benchmark was a failure. Numbers in the school dashboard do not include the current week.

Since July, Pinal County has achieved the benchmark of two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses below 10%. That rate is currently reported at 3.7%.

The state guidelines to schools for a return to in-person instruction include two straight weeks of positivity rates of less than 7%. For the first time since May, the report showed Pinal County’s rate at 5.9%, putting it halfway to the goal. If it shows a second week below 7% in next Thursday’s report, that benchmark will have been met, too.

“We notice a downward trend in community spread of COVID-19, which is encouraging,” Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent Tracey Lopeman said in her weekly “snapshot.”

The number of cases, however, is a stumbling block. The region must either have a decline in cases for two consecutive weeks or fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks. That has not happened.

MUSD had set an aspirational date to return to in-person classes Sept. 8, but Wednesday Lopeman explained her plan to push back start dates. A special meeting is set for Sept. 3 at 6:30 p.m. for the governing board to discuss the return.

Lopeman said there will also be a Tuesday Zoom session with parents “to ask questions and share concerns and observations.” About half of families had indicated in a districtwide survey their preference to stay online. That meeting starts at 5 p.m., and parents are to be emailed invitations.

Board members emphasized they are using county data to meet state benchmarks before committing to a return date.

State Rep. Bret Roberts of Maricopa said he felt the COVID numbers for Pinal County were “over-inflated” with the inclusion of case numbers from prisons. According to Pinal County, that affects only two ZIP codes in the county.

“Our Public Heath Department will be working with the school officials that have correctional facilities in their districts to ensure that their benchmarks are accurate and reflect the cases in the community,” spokesman James Daniels said.

Roberts said schools must use the county numbers, setting up a “liability conundrum” if they go against the guidelines. He said he became concerned when he saw the numbers in Pima County impacted by inmate cases.

The five correctional facilities in Pinal County have a COVID positivity rate of about 3%. Of the 374 confirmed cases in those five facilities, 328 are listed as recovered.

Roberts said he brought up the issue with legislative leaders, who told him they will look into it.