Virus surge puts MPS board in familiar hot seat The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Virus surge puts MPS board in familiar hot seat

Virus surge puts MPS board in  familiar hot seat
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BY PAUL MARYNIAK
Tribune Executive Editor

Nine months after the COVID-19 pandemic hit Arizona and nearly a month into a surge in the virus, Mesa Public Schools Board members last week found themselves in an all-too-familiar hot seat – hearing teachers demand at-home instruction for all students and begging parents to stop risky conduct that threatens to send their children there.

Pointing to a social media invitation to students to attend a winter dance, Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis heightened board members’ anxiety over the latter.

“We have seen through social media that many of our kids are being invited…to winter formals and these winter formals are gathering large groups of kids oftentimes wearing masks to the door, but not as they walk into this party or into this formal,” Fourlis said.

She said Mesa Mayor Giles will be talking with East Valley school superintendents about these social events and trying to arrange for an enforcement officer to ensure any attendees wear masks and maintain social distance.

“We can have the gatherings. We can take off our masks – or we can have in-person school, Fourlis added. “It’s just really difficult to do both. So, we have very important decisions to make not only in our schools, but also within our community.”

Such pleas underscored the fact what many school district officials across Arizona have been saying for weeks: schools are not responsible for spreading COVID-19, but rather reckless conduct by adults in the community is the culprit.

Stressing that formals, dances and parties are not sponsored by the district, Fourlis noted, “We have canceled large gatherings that are on our campuses purposely as a mitigation strategy to help not spread COVID.”

She also suggested some parents are deliberately spreading misinformation to other parents about the sponsorship of such events.

Board President Elaine Miner also had this to say to parents, especially as holiday gatherings become a major concern for health experts nationwide:

“We want everyone to know that we’re not telling you that we’re trying to take away your freedom to choose. We are telling you that we want you to be able to choose and have the option to go to school in person.”

Heightening the concern of board members and administrators is the worsening virus data picture for Mesa and the school district.

As of the week of Nov. 19, the district-wide metrics showed that cases per 100,000 people were at 227 – more than twice the threshold when virus spread is considered substantial.

Equally alarming is that another of the three benchmarks for virus spread was close to the substantial level, with new positive test results at 9.94 percent. State officials say 10 percent shows substantial virus spread.

Underscoring the assertion that schools are not fueling this surge is the fact that out of 67.512 students and staff in MPS, only 166 active COVID-19 cases have been reported.

Board member Jenny Richardson said the MPS case dashboard was a more accurately reflection of the virus spread on district campuses than the county’s data for Mesa’s ZIP codes, many of which have readings well above the district’s.

“It’s better in than a ZIP code because it’s telling us what’s happening on our campuses,” she said.

Fourlis also said that for now, MPS will take a school-by-school approach if it becomes necessary to have students in classrooms only two days a week or have them learning fulltime at home.

And Miner stressed the board already has given Fourlis the authority to make decisions on campus closings.

Fourlis also noted that administrators – like the general community – experience “levels of frustration” because COVID-19 “doesn’t behave the same way in every place.

“It behaves differently and it impacts different age groups of people,” she said. “So, we need to make very specialized decisions.”

But all the assurances that the district was trying to keep students safe and in classrooms five days a week failed to assuage teachers, a half dozen of whom urged that all students be returned to virtual learning.

“I know you are all facing a tremendous amount of pressure to keep schools open,” Fremont Junior High teacher Ashley McKenna told the board. “It is still horrific to me that this came damaged become an issue of politics instead of reality. There are members of the staff at my school who are questioning if they can finish the year because of the lack of support and flat-out disrespect that seems to be coming from the district office.”

Even parent Rebecca Smith sided with the teachers, saying that she believes schools should be open “but now is not the time.”

While one teacher noted that around 20 Valley school districts have returned to full time at-home learning – including Kyrene, Tempe Union and Tempe Elementary districts in the East Valley – Joshua Buckley, who heads the Mesa teachers’ union, told the board he has received hundreds of emails from colleagues demanding that classrooms be closed.

He criticized the individualized approach to closing campuses, asking “can we take some steps to further limit the exposure of students and staff on campuses now?”

Citing teachers’ letters that he forwarded to the board and the long Thanksgiving weekend, Buckley added:

“We’re pretty sure that the percent positivity will be higher. We’re pretty sure a case count will go up and we’re pretty sure when we return, we’ll see more cases on campuses and other campuses across Mesa. The decisions ahead of us can be proactive or reactive. The voices in the comments I shared with you today and yesterday are asking for proactive decisions.”

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