Arizona Schools Copper Courier Graphic by Desirée Tapia

Arizona schools haven’t closed due to a health emergency since 2009, when three schools closed for less than a week amid concerns over swine flu.

The Governor’s Office and Department of Education announced a two-week closure of all K-12 schools on Sunday due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus in the state.

Beginning March 16, over a million students enrolled in public, private, and charter schools throughout Arizona will take an unplanned hiatus from the classroom until the end of the month. Officials from 32 other states have also shut down schools in an attempt to reduce the spread of COVID-19, now considered to be a worldwide pandemic.

“The health and safety of all our students is our top priority, and we’ve worked hard to keep our school doors open — schools provide important services and many families rely on them for nutrition, access to health care and in order to do their own jobs,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. “I am in close contact with school superintendents, teachers, and parents and will continue working closely in partnership with schools to ensure that our families needs are met.”

School closures are rare

The last time state officials closed schools over a public health crisis was in 2009. Three elementary schools, two in Chandler and one in Phoenix, closed after students were confirmed to have contracted H1N1, commonly known as swine flu. The schools were only closed for a few days before returning to their normal schedules. At the time, there were an estimated 50 cases of the virus statewide.

But the official tally of confirmed coronavirus cases when statewide school closures were announced was far less than the estimated spread of the swine flu. There were only 12 known cases of coronavirus in Arizona when officials made the decision to shut down schools. That number jumped to 18 on Monday, according to The state health department’s daily report on the spread of coronavirus in Arizona.

Nationwide school closures for the coronavirus similarly overshadow the shutdowns over H1N1. In 2009, an estimated 468,000 students were affected by the closing of over 700 schools across the U.S. So far, approximately 64,000 schools have been closed due to the coronavirus, halting the education of more than 30 million students.

Dr. Bob England, interim director of the Pima County Health Department, says the difference between the two is the amount of information available. While the abundance of testing done for H1N1 left the state with a backlog of test kits to process, widespread testing also gave health officials insights into where the virus was most prevalent. This allowed for more precise action to be taken by local authorities to address spread in their respective regions.

Information is key

England, who served as the director of the Maricopa County Health Department in 2009, recently wrote an opinion piece comparing the two health emergencies. In it, England credited the state’s measured response to the outbreak on the ability to make informed decisions.

“It made no sense to close schools based upon where testing happened to have been done when it was almost certainly in many schools. The choice became either close every school, or none,” England wrote. “We decided that the economic and social disruption caused by closing schools would do more harm than good. That proved to be the right choice.”

In an interview with the Copper Courier, England said that he had hoped schools would remain open, as children are largely unaffected by the virus. But because there is so little data on how the virus is spreading in the state, he said officials have little choice other than to err on the side of caution. For the public health official, the limited testing done for the coronavirus and the uncertainty that it has brought has been a source of frustration.

“It’s frustrating for individuals who are sick, and whose providers want to test them,” England said. “It’s frustrating as all get-out for the providers, and it’s frustrating to public health because we need that information in order to make better decisions about what we need to do to limit spread.”

Not much to analyze

Coronavirus testing in the U.S. lags far behind that of other countries, performing approximately 41 tests for every one million people. In Arizona, only 143 individuals have been tested since kits became available in early March. State labs only have 800 test kits total; the scarcity has resulted in strict requirements for who can be tested.

Like England, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has expressed frustration with the limited testing done in the U.S. In a letter to Vice President Mike Pence, Murray demanded answers to a long list of questions relating to the Administration’s handling of the coronavirus.

“The Administration had months to prepare for this—and it is unacceptable that people at risk of infection in my state and nationwide can’t even get an answer as to whether or not they are infected,” Murray wrote. “To put it simply, if someone at the White House or in this Administration is actually in charge of responding to the coronavirus, it would be news to anyone in my state.”

Among the list of questions is one for clarity regarding the Trump Administration’s decision to have the Centers for Disease Control develop its own test for the coronavirus. An early breakthrough by Chinese scientists led to the creation of a test for the virus in January, but the U.S. declined to use free test kit templates distributed by the World Health Organization. 

Self-inflicted trial and error

The decision to create an independent test has left health experts like England in disbelief, and has put Arizona at a disadvantage. The first test kits sent to state labs by the CDC were faulty, and waiting for replacements delayed testing by several weeks. On a national scale, state labs were not able to perform consistent testing until late February.

“The fact that they can – within weeks – create a test is mind-blowing, and I’m grateful for it,” England said. “I do not understand – once they figured out how to do it – what the production problem is.”

The failure to effectively implement widespread testing has left public health officials like England at a loss, and state leaders without answers. And, as predicted by England, a lack of information on how the virus is spreading in Arizona has led local leaders to exercise an abundance of caution in their communities. 

Districts take charge

Despite recommendations to keep schools open made earlier in the month by both the CDC and Superintendent Hoffman, a growing number of school districts announced their decision to close schools to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. By Sunday, the closures became so widespread that the announcement to close schools statewide was little more than a formality.  

“As more schools announce closures and education administrators express staff shortages within their schools, now is the time to act,” Gov. Doug Ducey said on Sunday. “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.” 

But while Ducey hopes the two-week closure will bring consistency to the state’s school system, it is unclear whether or not all schools will be required to reopen on March 27. Before the statewide shutdown, at least a dozen school districts had announced plans to close indefinitely.