In less than 24 hours, the West Valley went from “bustling spring” to “nothing-doing spring.”
And for schools, “spring break week” became “spring break extended.”
Capping a chaotic weekend, during which many districts announced they were closing and others scrambled to make decisions, Gov. Doug Ducey announced all schools in the state would close from Monday, March 16, through Friday, March 27.
“School administrators should develop a plan to continue breakfast and lunch services for students,” Ducey ordered Sunday.
After international, federal and state warnings on the COVID-19 pandemic, what seemed to be a domino effect started Wednesday, March 11, with the NBA suspending its season indefinitely.
Playoff-hungry Arizona Coyotes fans learned the next day the NHL also suspended the season.
Late Thursday came a sledgehammer blow to the West Valley:
Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. announced MLB was suspending Spring Training and delaying the start of the 2020 regular season by at least two weeks. “This step is in the best interests of players, employees and the communities who host Spring Training,” Manfred said.
Friday morning, another hugely popular spring tradition tapped out. “The Luke Days 2020 airshow scheduled for March 21-22 is canceled due to growing COVID-19 concerns and to mitigate health risks to attendees,” said a release.
“We continue to take the health of our airmen and our community very seriously,” said Brig. Gen. Todd D. Canterbury, 56th Fighter Wing commander. “This decision to cancel was made after multiple meetings and conversations with our local community leaders and military health officials.”
Then came the school closures.
One West Valley school district after another announced Friday and Saturday that schools will be closed as of Monday — despite a Thursday letter from Kathy Hoffman, state superintendent of Public Instruction.
“School closures could potentially lead to an increase in community spread if students were to be placed in a different congregate area outside of their regular communities for childcare purposes,” Hoffman wrote to districts. “Importantly, when community spread is minimal, keeping our schools open also provides children with a regular routine that helps reduce panic and fear in the midst of tense times.”
Yet the Tolleson Union High School governing board voted late afternoon Friday, March 13, to close for two weeks.
“After careful and deliberate consideration and having the best health interests of our students, staff, and community in mind, the Tolleson Union High School District has made the decision to cancel school for the next two weeks, effective Monday, March 16, and extending through Friday, March 27,” TUHSD Superintendent Nora Gutierrez said, in a letter to families.
“This decision is based on the recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for staying home for 14 days after travel to areas of high COVID-19 exposure.”
Tolleson district, closing for two weeks as of Monday, has the following high schools: Copper Canyon High School, Glendale; La Joya Community High School, Avondale; Sierra Linda High School, Phoenix; Tolleson Union High School, Tolleson; University High School, Tolleson; West Point High School, Avondale; and Westview High School, Avondale.
Pendergast, Litchfield and Littleton elementary school districts quickly followed on Friday, announcing they will be closed this week. Buckeye Elementary School District announced Saturday its board voted to extend spring break by one week, March 16 to March 20.
Avondale Elementary School District announced on its website Saturday a closure from March 16 to March 18. “During this time, all staff will work to gather input and develop plans for next steps. We anticipate determining a plan to be communicated to families and staff by Tuesday evening to allow for a day’s notice for everyone,” the announcement said.
Agua Fria about-face
Before Ducey’s pronouncement, most West Valley districts voted to close for two weeks, though district governing boards noted they will be monitoring the situation and making further assessments.
After first saying it would be open this week, late Friday Agua Fria Union High School District governing announced a special board meeting Saturday to vote on closing this week. The board voted Saturday to close Agua Fria schools from March 16 to March 27. The board will meet again for reevaluation March 26.
Superintendent Dr. Dennis Runyan was present to answer questions for the board.
“Through this process, we’ve evaluated what’s in the best interest of helping to decrease the spread of this issue and helping our community,” Runyan said. “With that in mind, it is our recommendation that we close the schools for two weeks.”
There was district staff present and the room was tense due to uncertainty of what would happen if the schools were to be closed.
Board member Mariana Sandoval expressed her concern for the safety of the schools’ staff.
“The safety of our workers is very important,” Runyan said. “Teachers will be working online at home and they will have the option to go into their classrooms themselves privately if they want to run a lab or do a video to share with their students.”
In addition, the board requested to find a way for classified, or support, staff to be compensated for their time off. Runyan said they could look into the issue at the next meeting.
Board member Maxine Hill said, “My concern is we’re here for one reason and that is to vote on the closure. I think that all of these questions would be appropriate after we make our vote and allow administration to prepare answers to your questions.”
According to its website, the Agua Fria district serves the communities of Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear, Litchfield, Waddell and part of Glendale with its five high schools: Agua Fria; Canyon View; Desert Edge; Millennium and Verrado. The district has two alternative programs, Coldwater and New Directions.
Executive directors Holly Johnson and Megan Olson of Odyssey, a charter junior and senior high school in Buckeye, emailed the community Saturday that the school would remain closed after spring break after “administration was informed that a member of our staff who was part of the sanitation team has had indirect contact with a presumptive positive coronavirus case.
“As of today, that staff member is not exhibiting symptoms, but out of an abundance of caution, we are going to reclean all the schools with a different cleaning crew. This will require a continued shut down of the buildings for another week.”
Ducey’s pronouncement Sunday ended debates at other districts about whether to close or stay open.
“Over the past few weeks and in coordination with public health officials, we have been in close communication with school administrators to provide guidance and be a resource as it relates to the recent outbreak of COVID-19,” Ducey said. “As more schools announce closures and education administrators express staff shortages within their schools, now is the time to act.
“A statewide closure is the right thing to do. While this measure will not stop the spread of COVID-19, it will bring certainty and consistency in schools across Arizona.”
Ducey stressed schools should continue providing education to students. “School administrators should make every effort to provide continued education learning opportunities through online resources or materials that can be sent home,” he said.
As of Friday Avondale and Liberty elementary school districts planned to remain open.
“Based on the information we’ve gathered, all BESD schools and BASE after school care programs will currently remain open,” said Superintendent Kristi Sandvik, in a letter to parents dated Friday.
Then, on Saturday, the BESD website posted a “school closure” notification.
“The Buckeye Elementary School District Governing Board held an emergency meeting this afternoon in response to community concerns regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. At the meeting, the governing board voted to extend the break one week (March 16 to March 20) for students, citing concern for staff and student safety. Another board meeting will be scheduled in the coming week to review additional information and determine next steps.”
Similarly, as of Friday afternoon, Buckeye Union High School District planned to remain open.
“At this time, school closures are not being recommended by any of these government agencies, so we will resume school after spring break on Monday, March 16,” said Superintendent Eric Godfrey, in a letter to parents posted online.
Saturday afternoon, the news of a closure was on Buckeye Union district’s website.
“The Governing Board of the Buckeye Union High School District held an emergency Board Meeting at 2 p.m.. today and approved the closure of the district’s schools until further notice,” Godfrey wrote.
“The district will continue to monitor the situation. As new information becomes available, we will update you. In the meantime, District staff will be finalizing strategies to continue instruction to students and the final plan will be communicated to parents and students as soon as it is available.”
Saddle Mountain Unified School District had no plans to close, as of Friday.
“At this point, we are following the guidance from the Department of Health Services, Department of Education and the governor’s office to stay open,” said Dr. Paul Tighe, district superintendent.
Saddle Mountain has a little time to make a decision, however, as its spring break is this week.
“We will monitor and evaluate things next week to determine if we will need to close after spring break,” said Tighe.
The charter schools of Great Hearts Academies decided to extend spring break and remain closed this week.
“I want to be clear this is a precautionary measure in response to coronavirus,” said Wade Dyke, CEO of Great Hearts America.
“We do not have any confirmed cases or known exposure in our Arizona or Texas school communities.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the following guidance on school closures Saturday:
“Available modeling data indicate that early, short to medium closures do not impact the epi curve of COVID-19 or available health care measures (e.g., hospitalizations). There may be some impact of much longer closures (eight weeks, 20 weeks) further into community spread, but that modelling also shows that other mitigation efforts (e.g., handwashing, home isolation) have more impact on both spread of disease and health care measures. In other countries, those places who closed school (e.g., Hong Kong) have not had more success in reducing spread than those that did not (e.g., Singapore).
“In places where school closures are necessary, the anticipated academic and economic impacts and unintended impacts on disease outcomes must be planned for and mitigated. Provision of academic support (e.g., tele-ed), alternatives for school-based meals as well as other services (e.g., behavioral and mental health services) for economically and physically vulnerable children, support for families for whom telework and paid sick leave is not available, ensuring that high risk individuals continue to be protected must all be addressed. Special consideration must be given for health care workers so that school closures do not impact their ability to work.”
Spring Training, which started Feb. 22, was scheduled to continue through March 22.
The last game of Goodyear Ballpark’s season turned out to be Tuesday, March 10.
Josh Rojas, the former Millennium High star trying to maintain his spot on his hometown team’s roster, had a triumphant homecoming, hammering his third home run of Spring Training to lead the Arizona Diamondbacks to a 10-2 win over the Reds. The announced crowd size was 3,619.
While other Cactus League games were played Wednesday, March 11, the Goodyear Ballpark scheduled game between the Kansas City Royals and Indians was rained out.
Spring Training fans who had planned to watch Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds games at Goodyear Ballpark that were canceled are eligible for ticket refunds.
According to the ballpark’s website, “In the event a regulation game (4 1/2 innings) is not played due to a rainout or other situation dictated by Major League Baseball, tickets may be either exchanged or refunded through the original method of purchase.”
In 2018, the Cactus League generated an economic impact of $644 million.
“The safety of the public is the No. 1 concern of each of our ballparks,” Bridget Binsbacher, Cactus League executive director, said in a statement.
“Following MLB’s decision to cancel the remaining Spring Training schedule in response to the coronavirus pandemic, we will support our facilities in their efforts to ensure safety of the fans, teams, employees and media. We understand that many fans look forward to Cactus League games and we sympathize with those whose plans were impacted.”
Octavio Serrano contributed to this story.