PHOENIX – Higher than normal student absenteeism rates were reported in the Phoenix metro area on Wednesday, where many school districts resumed classes even as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increased in Arizona.
Officials from the Cartwright Elementary School District which oversees 21 K-8 schools with nearly 15,000 children in greater Phoenix said they recorded 3,051 absent students on Monday, 2,319 Tuesday and 2,256 Wednesday.
That compares to about 1,600 absences on the first day of fall and the last day of school in December, said Veronica Sanchez, district public relations manager. She said teacher absences were also on the rise, but did not have exact numbers.
The district enforces the use of masks and provides rapid COVID-19 testing in a centralized location.
Gov. Doug Ducey on Tuesday took what he called “preventative action” to keep public schools open and give students access to in-person education despite the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Arizona and the rest of the world. all the countries. The new program would give private school vouchers to parents of students whose schools are closing or moving to distance learning.
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He’s using federal coronavirus relief funds, despite warnings from the US Treasury Department that two previous school programs he created are not authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act.
Ducey is using $ 10 million in relief funds to give parents up to $ 7,000 a year to pay for tuition and education. Applicants can earn up to 350% of the federal poverty line – $ 92,750 for a family of four.
No Arizona public school has announced plans to close or return to distance learning, but the state teachers union president said on Tuesday that could happen if enough staff are put in. the gap due to illness.
âIf we continue to see omicron spread as it spreads, you’ll end up dealing with the same things as restaurants, theaters and small businesses around the world,â Arizona Education Association president Joe Thomas said. . âIf you don’t have enough healthy employees, you have to make some kind of change. And maybe that’s what they’re trying to make their voices heard against. “
Thomas said he is in no way advocating closing schools, simply educating parents about the realities they might face. A tweet he sent Schools may have to close on Monday angered Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon. Salmon accuses Thomas of pushing for closure and said it would ban blended learning and promote the expansion of voucher programs for private schools in the state.
President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that there was no reason to believe the omicron was worse for children than previous variants and noted $ 130 billion in federal virus relief to ensure safety and l opening of schools.
The money is for testing, improving ventilation, distancing and other mitigation measures.
âAnd states and school districts have spent that money well – a lot of them. But, unfortunately, some didn’t, âBiden said. âSo I encourage states and school districts to use the funding you still have to protect your children and keep schools open. “
Ducey’s program has been in effect since January 3 and governor’s website will have an application portal by the end of the week.
Ducey created a similar $ 10 million school voucher program for parents whose schools require masks or quarantines and touted it as a response to cries from parents. Despite more than 2,500 requests, only 85 students are receiving the vouchers and the state has paid out $ 595,000, Ducey’s spokesperson CJ Karamargin said on Tuesday.
The governor also created a $ 163 million grant program in August only available to schools in high-income areas that do not have a mask mandate.
Both programs go against the rules for spending federal virus relief money because they “undermine evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19,” according to the Treasury Department. Ducey rejected Treasury demands in November and did not interrupt the programs.
A spokesperson for the Treasury said on Tuesday that the department was monitoring the uses of coronavirus relief funds and “expects any government that uses them in violation of eligible uses to return the embezzled funds to the federal government.”
Karamargin said the new voucher program gives parents options.
âThe goal here is to give parents a lifeline in the event that a school closes,â Karamargin said.
Thomas called on the governor and the Legislative Assembly, which begins its 2022 session on Monday, to return to the early days of the pandemic, when schools can respond to local conditions.
âThey have to go back to their playbook when we started all of this, where they were giving the districts flexibility,â Thomas said.
Arizona’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose Wednesday for the fourth day in a row, and the state’s seven-day moving averages for virus cases and deaths both increased in the previous two weeks.
As of Tuesday, there were 2,555 COVID-19 patients occupying inpatient beds statewide, up from 2,283 on Saturday, according to the state report. coronavirus dashboard.
Wednesday’s dashboard showed 61 additional deaths from COVID-19 and an additional 7,749 confirmed cases, bringing the state’s pandemic total to 24,570 deaths and 1,419,562 cases.
Coconino County added 192 cases and two deaths, bringing its total to 29,116 cases and 420 deaths.
The state’s moving average of daily deaths fell from 71.3 on December 20 to 75.3 on Monday, while the moving average of daily new cases more than doubled from 2,947 to 7,017.1 during from the same period, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Arizona has the fourth highest COVID-19 death rate among US states, with 334 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other virus-related developments:
– The Havasupai tribe in northern Arizona have said they will block tourists from visiting their reserve deep in a gorge off the Grand Canyon until at least June now due to the pandemic. The reserve is famous for its blue-green waterfalls which attract tourists from all over the world. It has been closed to visitors since March 2020.
– The Navajo Nation reported 35 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, but no additional deaths for at least the second day in a row.
The latest figures have pushed the number of cases in the Navajo Nation since the start of the pandemic to 41,779, with 87 reported cases being delayed.
The death toll remains at 1,590.
Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the omicron variant was detected in the Utah part of the Navajo Nation this week.
Based on cases from December 17 to 30, the Navajo Department of Health has issued an advisory for 42 communities due to the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.
“As reported by many health officials, the omicron variant is more contagious than the original strain of the virus and the delta variant,” Nez said in a statement Tuesday. âIf you go to public places with a large number of people, health officials recommend wearing two masks due to the higher transmissibility of the omicron variant. We need everyone’s help to educate and protect our seniors and those with underlying health problems. “
–In northwestern Arizona, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 for a resolution recognizing a public health crisis due to severe staff shortages at county hospitals, an area typically conservative with low vaccination rates.
The statement overturns a December board vote rejecting a request by hospital officials to declare a state of emergency, Today’s News-Herald reported.
Kingman Regional Medical Center CEO Will McConnell said official board recognition of the crisis will allow hospitals to advocate more for state and federal help to get more nurses.