'This is stressful': More than 100 Arizona classrooms quarantine over COVID-19 in 12 districts

Yana Kunichoff
Arizona Republic

Tucson parent Abbie Hlavacek says she has spent much of November in overlapping COVID-19 quarantines for two of her three children. Her middle child was exposed in early November, tested negative and spent most of the month in quarantine. A week after he entered quarantine, she found out her kindergartener had been exposed the week before.

“This is stressful,” said Hlavacek, whose three children attend Marana Unified School District.

While all of her children were vaccinated this fall, the ongoing exposures have kept her from feeling the expected comfort.

“Shockingly, I’m not feeling that relief yet,” she said.

At Marana Unified, eight classrooms at one school closed in mid-November, bringing the total number of quarantined classes this school year to 25.

Staff members out due to COVID-19 made it even more complicated. Amid Arizona’s ongoing shortage of full-time and substitute teachers, 146 staff members in the district tested positive for COVID-19.

“Managing the school’s daily operations with many staff members out due to COVID is extremely challenging, and we are grateful for our healthy staff members who continue to step in wherever assistance is needed,” the district, which recommends but does not require face masks, said in a message on its site.

And Marana is not alone. At Phoenix Elementary School District, which does have a mask mandate, about 70 entire classrooms have had to quarantine for anywhere from two to 10 days so far this school year. At Yuma School District One, 16 classrooms of students have had to pause in-person learning.

At home, parents are juggling work demands, COVID-19 tests and quarantine plans long after they had hoped their pandemic parenting logistical nightmares would be done.

“I’m just stuck in this weird limbo,” says Alexa Lewis, parent of a kindergarten child at a Marana district school. Lewis, who used to be a day care and after-school teacher, became a stay-at-home parent to manage the last-minute child care needs of pandemic schooling.

COVID-19 has continued to spread across Arizona, with both cases and hospitalizations on the upswing among all age groups, including school-age children. That’s due in large part to the highly transmissible delta variant that shifted the dynamics of the pandemic when it surged to become the dominant coronavirus strain this summer.

Assessing the impact of quarantines on Arizona students is complicated — those records are not available across the board at the school, district or county level, in part because families may be exposed outside of school or begin quarantines after take-home tests.

In an effort to quantify the effect on schools, The Arizona Republic reached out to 22 public school districts of varying sizes around the state to request updated COVID-19 figures, estimates of how much learning time students had missed and data on how many school buildings and classrooms were shut down so far. Arizona has a total of 228 traditional school districts in the state.

Most did not respond, including some of the state's largest districts. In the 12 districts that did, more than 5,000 students and more than 600 staff, have contracted and tested positive for the coronavirus.

While most of the 12 were not able to provide a count of how many days students were out of school due to COVID-19, initial figures show that more than 100 entire classrooms were forced to quarantine.

A kindergarten classroom at Dunbar elementary is setup for students during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools in the Phoenix Elementary District plan to reopen in Phoenix on Mar. 10, 2021.

Quarantines are intended to keep students safe from COVID-19, but families and districts both agree they are also deeply disruptive.

“It is challenging to quantify the impact of COVID-19 quarantines on student learning in MUSD,” a district spokesperson said. Its approach had been to mitigate the disruption by giving students assignments that can be completed from home and other remote learning activities.

“As students return from quarantine, teachers have worked to provide supplemental learning activities to make sure that students who had to miss class are able to remain on pace with their classmates,” the district said.

Still, Marana Unified is not weighing a mask requirement.

“No, we do not have a mask mandate in place and we are not currently exploring implementing one.”

A rolling wave of school absences

School quarantines can look different depending on vaccination levels, mask wearing, community spread and the district's quarantine enforcement.

How schools count COVID-19-related school absences also varies. For example:

  • Marana Unified School District counts quarantine-related absences as excused, and there is no limit. If a parent voluntarily decides to keep their student out after the required days set forth by the nurse/health aide, those days are marked as personal.
  • Tempe Union High School District gives students 10 excused absences for COVID-19 per semester.
  • Paradise Valley Unified School District excuses quarantine absences, and there is no limit nor penalty to the student.
  • Madison School District excuses quarantined absences and does not limit the number students are allowed.
  • Tempe Elementary School District quarantines a student based on COVID exposure, in which case their absences are excused. There is not a limit if they have been exposed to a confirmed case.
  • Phoenix Elementary School District excuses all COVID-19 absences but categorizes absences into two categories: students who are engaging in remote learning and those who are not.
  • Kyrene School District excuses all student absences.
  • Peoria Unified School District students in quarantine have teachers work with them in order to support their learning at home.
  • Yuma School District One excuses quarantine-related absences with no limit, as long as the quarantine meets the school's requirements.
  • Deer Valley Unified School District counts quarantine-related absences as excused.
  • Scottsdale Unified School District excuses quarantine-related absences and there is no limit.

Of the 12 schools that answered The Republic's questions, some also provided COVID-19 cases numbers:

  • Marana Unified School District, which has optional masking, has had 760 student COVID-19 cases and 146 staff cases. The district has not closed any school buildings but has had to quarantine a total of 25 classrooms so far this school year.
  • Tempe Elementary School District, which requires face coverings while indoors, has had 422 student positive COVID-19 cases so far this school year and 100 staff cases. Approximately 1,062 students have quarantined. The district has not had to close any school buildings.
  • Peoria Unified School District, which recommends but does not require masks, has had 2,474 COVID-19 student or staff cases on its campuses since Aug. 4, 2021. The district has not closed any school buildings since the start of the year.
  • Paradise Valley Unified School District, which has a mask rule with an opt-out option, has had 1,221 positive student cases and 138 staff cases from Aug. 10 to Nov. 19. The district has not had to close any school buildings.
  • Deer Valley Unified School District, does not require masks. The district has had to quarantine entire classrooms, and some students have been quarantined more than once, but it does not keep public records on the number of classrooms closed due to COVID-19 quarantines. The district said it does not keep a public record of COVID-19 cases this school year.
  • Tempe Union High School District, which has a mask requirement, has not had to close any school buildings or classrooms due to COVID-19. The district did not share information on COVID-19 cases in students and staff this school year.
  • Madison School District, which has a mask rule with an opt-out option, has had a total of 254 COVID-19 cases since the start of the school year, including both students and staff. The district has not had to close any school buildings.
  • Queen Creek Unified School District had 614 student COVID-19 cases and 86 staff cases this school year.
  • Yuma School District One, which does not mandate masks but highly recommends them in times of substantial COVID-19 transmission, has had 385 students and 57 staff test positive from the start of the school year to Nov. 15. The district has had to close one school and 16 classrooms for ten calendar days each this year.
  • Scottsdale Unified School District, which requires masks but will make face coverings optional in January, had 1,073 students and staff who reported testing positive for COVID-19. The district has not had to shut down any schools or classrooms this year.
  • Phoenix Elementary School District, which has a mask mandate, has had 208 students and 50 staff test positive for COVID-19. It has not closed any school buildings but has had to quarantine 70 classes so far this school year.
  • Kyrene School District, which currently requires face masks at certain COVID-19 thresholds but will make masks optional in January, had 669 positive COVID-19 cases in students and 99 in staff through Nov. 15. The district has not had to close any school buildings.

How an 'alternative quarantine' could cut down on out-of-class time

A kindergarten classroom at Dunbar elementary is setup for students during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools in the Phoenix Elementary District plan to reopen in Phoenix on Mar. 10, 2021.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health is piloting an approach in some Madison School District schools that would allow students exposed to COVID-19 to remain in school with regular testing.

Billed as an "alternative quarantine" option for students who are not fully vaccinated and modeled on a Los Angeles County program, “masked test-to-stay” allows students to remain in school during their quarantine period.

That means mask-wearing students who are exposed to someone with COVID-19 that was also wearing a mask, and who do not show symptoms, can remain in class if they agree to take a COVID-19 test on the first, third and fifth days after exposure. Currently, those tests are done using over-the-counter rapid tests that give results in around 15 minutes.

Students of brand new John S. McCain III Elementary School make their way to class on the first day of school in Buckeye, AZ, Aug. 4, 2021.

The test-to-stay program, however, is most effective for students who don’t show symptoms and at school districts that not only have mask rules in place but strictly enforce them, said Maricopa County medical director for disease control Rebecca Sunenshine. The Madison district schools piloting the program all have at least 95% compliance with a mask requirement.

That means the program may not be available at all schools, which follow public health recommendations on masks and quarantines to variable levels, she said.

But for those with whom it works, it offers a hopeful option.

“We have every reason to expect that under the test-to-stay there will be fewer days of school missed,” she said.

The Madison district is not alone in considering an alternative version of quarantine.

Paradise Valley Unified School District announced a “test to stay” quarantine option in a Nov. 18 letter to parents. The district said it would revise its quarantine policy to allow students in middle and high school to remain at school after exposure if they were not wearing a mask but had a negative test and promised to wear a mask for an eight-day period. If a middle or high student is wearing a mask and becomes a close contact, they do not need to quarantine.

The new practice begins in middle and high schools after Thanksgiving and in elementary schools following the winter break.

Families brace for the rest of the school year

Experts say the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations for children ages 5 and older could shift the school safety debate — if families get them.

“By the winter holidays, every school-aged student over age 5 will have had the opportunity to become fully vaccinated,” Sunenshine said. “It absolutely changes the environment.”

But state numbers show that, so far, only 24.5% of Arizonans 20 years old and younger have received at least one dose of the vaccine. Statewide, 62% of people are vaccinated, as of Nov. 26.

Lewis and other parents who came together this year to push Marana Unified on its COVID-19 safety measures want the district to implement a mask mandate, enforce more social distancing and have students eat lunch outdoors where possible. They’ve also reached out to school board members, the Pima County Board of Supervisors and local health officials.

In a statement, a representative from the Marana Unified School District said that, while masks would remain optional for the foreseeable future, the district does encourage staff and students to wear them. "We have remained consistent in our request to families and staff members that we strongly recommend wearing masks, especially when indoors," the statement said.

Meanwhile, the parents are bracing for the rest of the school year.

For Lewis, not being able to work regularly means she is not sure yet what Christmas presents she’ll be able to afford.

“I had to sell my car to stay on top of bills,” she said. “Last year, we had a hard time with Christmas presents and just trying to stay afloat.”

Melissa Nail, whose son, Killian, is in fourth grade at Marana Unified, is at high risk, even after getting the vaccine, because of a heart disorder. That means, Nail says, her son will learn from home while the pandemic continues.

But the effect on his mental health has been severe.

“It’s just sort of a slow, heart-breaking process of watching him dwindle because he hasn’t been around friends or other children in two years,” she said. “But we do what we have to do to keep him here physically.”

Reach the reporter at ykunichoff@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.