A New Year begins with school districts struggling with a divisive question: to close classrooms or not to close?

Arizona’s COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population soared to 121, highest in the country, according to CDC data released Monday, Jan. 4.

As of Dec. 31, Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear and Tolleson were all above 700 cases per 100,000 in the last seven days, with Litchfield Park over 600 new cases per 100,000 in the last seven days.

While previous guidance from public health officials was to close classrooms and have online teaching, officials are now urging districts to teach students in classrooms.

The guidance is somewhat conflicting.

For public schools in the West Valley, the Maricopa County school metrics shows an overall risk level of “substantial” and “recommended learning scenario is: virtual with onsite support.”

But, according to new guidance updated Dec. 31, “Maricopa County Department of Public and Arizona Department of Health Services have agreed to support those jurisdictions who are able to maintain a safe learning environment with regular school-by-school monitoring, regardless of levels of community COVID-19 transmission.

“Further, with the recent publications emphasizing the benefits of in-person learning, particularly for elementary schools, and the emerging data indicating that in-person school attendance is not a risk factor for youth testing positive for COVID-19, MCDPH recommends preferentially keeping elementary and middle schools open for in-person learning.”

The new guidelines came after many West Valley school districts decided to close classrooms.

“We continue to monitor the safety and welfare of our students and staff,” said Dennis Runyan, superintendent of the Agua Fria Unified High School District. “The infection rate by ZIP codes for our area of service has remained much higher than previous closure periods already experienced.” 

While the district is keeping classrooms closed for now, “The school board will continue to review conditions during each monthly meeting for any assessment for a safe and possible return to in-person classes with input from staff and health officials. We have not yet reached that point yet for returning safely.”

In a Facebook video post, Dr. Roger Freeman, superintendent of the Littleton Elementary School District, advised “keep your social bubble small. … If we want to open our doors in January, everyone’s choices will matter.”

He said vaccines were good news, “but it will take time for the vaccine to be fully effective and months before everyone has a chance to be vaccinated. So please keep wearing your masks, washing your hands regularly and maintaining social distance.”

Littleton announced the second week of December classrooms would remain closed through Jan. 15. 

“We also believe that 2021 will bring great opportunities and that we will once again be having school in-person, even though it will not look the same as it did once before; we look forward to that day,” Freeman added in a community letter.

For most West Valley public schools, winter break ended Jan. 4, with classes resuming.

But classrooms are closed, as 2021 begins with online learning, for most public school students in the West Valley.

“Litchfield Elementary School District’s data from the Maricopa County Department of Public Health has skyrocketed. Our kindergarten through eighth grade students will remain in distance learning until further notice,” said an LESD website pre-break post. 

At Buckeye Elementary School District, “families should plan for continued virtual instruction the week of Jan. 4,” according to a pre-winter break post at the district website.

On Dec. 31, Buckeye Elementary School District posted an update noting the latest county health metrics were posted: “All three categories are in red, resulting in ‘substantial’ risk. … As a result, families should plan for continued virtual instruction through the week of Jan. 11.”

Similarly, Buckeye Union High School District “will be in Distance Learning for all students for, at least, the first two weeks of January,” according to the BUHSD website. “On Jan. 4, all schools will follow their late start schedule.”

Agua Fria Unified High School District also begins its new semester online. “As we continue to monitor the possible future return to ‘in-person’ campus classes, we will bring an update to the first Jan. 13 board meeting. This meeting will include an update on metrics and information for future planning opportunities that can be safely considered,” Runyan said in a letter posted before winter break.

Similarly, Avondale Elementary School District—which returned to online teaching Dec. 14—remains in virtual learning mode.

Schools are still “obligated to provide on-site learning opportunities and support services,” according to Gov. Doug Ducey’s order.

The county COVID-19 schools website shows West Valley districts with overall risk levels of “substantial” and recommended learning scenarios of “virtual with onsite support.”

The county updates school district data each Thursday, with three benchmarks: cases per 100,000, percentage of positive tests and percentage of “COVID-like illnesses.”

Anything over 100 cases per 100,000 is considered “substantial spread”—and the West Valley is many times above that minimum.

According to the county’s Dec. 30 update, most West Valley public school district communities’ cases per 100,000 were above 700.

The highest was the Tolleson Union High School District community, where cases per 100,000 rose from 781 to 990.

Avondale Elementary School District’s community had 891 cases per 100,000.

Liberty Elementary School District’s cases per 100,000 rose from 794 to 869.

Communities surrounding Littleton Elementary School District, Litchfield Elementary School District, Saddle Mountain Unified School District, Buckeye Union High School District and Agua Fria Union High School District all had COVID-19 cases far above 500 per 100,000.

Arizona began December with 326,817 COVID-19 cases in the previous nine months and ended the month and year with 520,027 total cases. The 193,210 coronavirus cases in December were 60% of the total during the other nine months. The first four days of January, Arizona added 40,000 new cases.

Maricopa County started December with 205,522 total COVID-19 cases the previous nine months and ended the month and year with 322,449 cases. The 116,927 county coronavirus cases in December were 57% of the total during the previous nine months.