Update: This story has been updated with information from the district indicating four Chaparral High School students who were already supposed to be in quarantine attended class briefly on Oct. 22
Scottsdale Unified School District warned parents on Friday that it could have to close up to 10 schools if COVID-19 cases continue to rise in three ZIP codes that represent about a quarter of the district’s total student population.
Superintendent Scott Menzel told families that increased spread in 85251 and 85253 in Scottsdale and 85018 in Phoenix could require closures at Echo Canyon K-8, Pima Traditional School, Ingleside Middle School, Arcadia and Chaparral high schools and Hopi, Tavan, Navajo, Cherokee and Kiva elementary schools.
“The trend in the metrics in those areas of our District has triggered the need to begin preparing for the potential return to virtual learning where substantial community spread is occurring,” an Oct. 23 letter stated.
In September, the SUSD Governing Board adopted health benchmarks recommended by state and county public health officials that determine when it is safe for schools to return to in-person learning.
Under those metrics, SUSD has qualified for a “hybrid” return to campuses for around two months.
The benchmarks recommend that schools use a hybrid format as long as the number of new COVID-19 cases in a ZIP code do not exceed 100 cases per 100,000 residents for two consecutive weeks.
According to Maricopa County, new cases in 85251, 85253 and 85018 exceeded that threshold from Oct. 11-17 – the most recent data available.
“This would put them in the red for that benchmark if they are over 100 next week as well,” Menzel wrote.
Those ZIP codes are home to about 26 percent of SUSD’s student body.
Three other ZIP codes – 85255, 85008 and 85281 – are also nearing the red zone, with over 90 new cases per 100,000 residents in the most recent round of data.
Overall, SUSD has seen new cases numbers rise in all ZIP codes except one.
ZIP code 85281, which includes Arizona State University, saw its new case numbers drop from 105.6 to 99.89.
The Oct. 23 letter came less than a week after it school officials told 219 Chaparral High students to quarantine for 14 days after they were in close contact with COVID-positive students on campus.
District spokeswoman Amy Bolton confirmed that four students who were already supposed to be in quarantine attended class briefly on Oct. 22.
"Chaparral High School had four students that came to school on October 22 when they were supposed to be in quarantine," Bolton said. "Teachers immediately sent the students to the nurse’s office at the beginning of first period. Parents were contacted and the students were sent home."
Bolton said she did not know if those four students had tested positive or were just had close contact with positive cases.
Chaparral currently has 23 total active cases of COVID-19 and has had 41 cases overall, according to a district dashboard.
At a Governing Board meeting on Oct. 23, Menzel said the district has received reports of several additional cases but is still awaiting confirmation from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.
At least 10 of the students with lab-confirmed positive tests were on the Chaparral campus the week of Oct. 12, the first week middle and high school students returned to campus.
Menzel said the district has worked closely with county health officials to conduct contact tracing and notices went out to all families with students potentially exposed to their infected peers.
“As of today, we still don't have any evidence outside of the athletic programs of any spread within our facilities,” Menzel said at the Oct. 20 meeting. “So there's no student-to-student or student-to-staff or staff-to-students spread within our classrooms.”
Chaparral had two cases connected to the school’s football team in late September that caused cancellation of two weeks of games or the varsity and junior varsity squads.
A district spokeswoman did not respond to a question about whether or not additional cases were connected to the football team.
The county, which spearheads contact tracing, also declined to comment.
“Maricopa County does not discuss specific outbreaks, cases, individuals or locations,” county spokesman Ron Coleman said. “Maricopa County regularly communicates with schools and school districts to provide information so that they can make the best decisions for their situation.”
The district adopted a model that saw students return to campus in phases in September and October, starting with the youngest grades.
Middle and high school students, the last to return to campuses, started school Oct. 12.
While the district said its return technically qualifies as a hybrid model because some students remained at home, 80 to 90 percent of the student population returned to classrooms at some SUSD campuses.
Menzel said the district has evidence that existing positive cases are connected to large gatherings outside of school and sports, not the return to classrooms.
“While our students and staff are doing their part while at school, activity outside of school appears to be the reason for the increase in cases noted this past week,” Menzel wrote parents.
"Many people traveled for fall break and groups of students who traveled together have become ill. Others participated in larger gatherings with friends (unmasked and not physically distanced), which also appears to have been an environment where the virus was passed to others.”
The superintendent asked families to take recommendations from health officials seriously and urged against feeding into the increased political polarization surrounding COVID-19.
“Dismissal of the threat of COVID is as much of a problem as paralyzing fear that can lead to inaction and full shutdown,” Menzel wrote.
“The false choices of pretending that COVID is not a threat and, therefore, living as though it is no more of a challenge than the flu, or closing everything down until we have a vaccine, undermine the thoughtful and balanced approach that is necessary for our community to weather this storm and come through on the other side stronger as a result.”
Overall, the district reported 40 active cases, including three cases at Saguaro High, two cases each at Hopi Elementary and Ingleside Middle School, and one each at Cheyenne K-8, Cocopah Middle School, Desert Mountain High School and Sequoya and Tavan elementary schools.
When the district is notified of a positive case, that information given to a school’s nurse, who then makes contact with Maricopa County public health officials.
“In some cases, the county has contacted us about a case, in others, we report it to them and they initiate a process to determine whether it is a confirmed case,” according to Menzel’s letter.
When the county confirms a positive case, that information is relayed back to the school’s nurse and the district begins the process of identifying anyone who was in close contact with a positive case.
The Centers for Disease Control recently revised its definition of close contact to mean any individual who has been within six feet of an infected person for a total 15 minutes within a 24 hour period.
Previously, the CDC defined close contact as any individual who was within six feet of an infected person for 15 consecutive minutes.
Menzel indicated the district and county are utilizing the new definition.
Individuals who are in close contact with a positive case are required to quarantine for 14 days even if they are not sick or showing symptoms.
The district said any decision to close a school would be made in partnership with county health officials.
Menzel said students and families can get tested for free through a partnership between Maricopa County and Banner Health.
School nurses in SUSD can print out a voucher that will allow individuals to receive a test free of charge at any Banner Urgent Care.
Menzel said SUSD is also in early discussions with Embry Women’s Health about the possibility of setting up a testing site on SUSD property.
Embry’s is looking to replace an existing testing site on the Scottsdale Community College campus that is scheduled to close Oct. 30.
“We don't know whether or not we're going to be able to accommodate that, because we don't think we can put a drive-in testing site on a campus where we have kids coming on a regular basis…” Menzel said. “And so we've got limited options, but I do think it's important to say that we are looking at all of the available resources…”
At the board meeting on Oct. 20, Menzel addressed frustration some in the community have had with the time it takes to learn about potential exposure.
Menzel said the district will notify families immediately when there are suspected cases in class room but will not send out quarantine letters until cases are confirmed by the county.
“And what we don't want to do is send out a form team letter to close contacts and then discover that the case wasn't positive, it was an antibody test and not an antigen test, for example,” Menzel said.
There are also concerns that influx of quarantined students will negatively impact learning for students in the enhanced distance learning model, the model used for students that are still learning from home rather than returning to school in person.
All students in quarantine will also go back to the EDL model until they are cleared to return to school.
According to the district’s learning plans, high school students returning to in-person learning will receive three 73- minute classes per day while EDL students will only receive three 36- minute courses of direct instruction.
When administration introduced the plan, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kim Guerin downplayed the impact of the time disparity between in-person and EDL students, because only a handful of students were expected to remain in EDL in any given class.
Guerin said with so few students in each course students would receive more one-on-one instruction during those 36 minutes.
But, with more students entering EDL, there are concerns that the one-on-one instruction will no longer be feasible.
Menzel said the district is working on solutions to those issues.
In some cases, he said teachers are using laptop cameras or new cameras purchased by the district to allow more at-home students stream the live 73-minute classes and participate in real time.
In September, the SUSD Governing Board approved the purchase of 800 cameras at a cost not to exceed $908,000 and Menzel said the district could purchase more cameras in the future.
“And I've heard good reports about the environments where that's happened, and we're looking at other improvements so that we can be sure that we're addressing the needs of both of those that have been quarantined…as well as those that have chosen EDL, to make sure that all of our students are getting the instructional support they need,” Menzel said.