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Mingus students return to in-person learning as pandemic lingers

Superintendent Mike Westcott is welcoming students back to Mingus Union High School just as the pandemic is spiking again. (Verde Independent/Vyto Starinskas)

Superintendent Mike Westcott is welcoming students back to Mingus Union High School just as the pandemic is spiking again. (Verde Independent/Vyto Starinskas)

COTTONWOOD – Students returned to classes at Mingus Union High School Monday, Jan. 3, to in-person learning and without a mask requirement, as school boards across the country try to figure out how to deal with the new spike in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Mingus reported the school identified 181 positive cases of COVID last semester among students. Superintendent Mike Westcott said the school’s numbers compare to most other high schools in Arizona and are consistently lower than the county’s average.

The school is not looking at returning to remote learning at this time because the instructional staffing is strong, Westcott said. “We’re holding steady.”

But they have had some issues with staffing the provisional positions like in the cafe, the bus drivers and custodial positions.

Westcott pointed out that the district can mandate masks based on a court ruling in November.

“At this point, there is no interest in taking up any kind of mask mandate, but we’re going to modify our isolation and quarantine guidance to align with the updates that the CDC just released,” Westcott said

The district’s decision was made to encourage, but not mandate mask for students for now.

Currently, without a mandate, Westcott said a low number of students are choosing to wear a mask during school.

The school does not have statistics on how many students have been vaccinated, but Westcott said they know from county numbers that it’s relatively low for that age group.

Nurse contacts exposed

The school posted last semester’s COVID numbers on a dashboard on its Facebook page and plans to update the numbers every few weeks, Westcott said.

“What we know is that compares pretty evenly with most other high school districts,” Westcott said. It’s also lower than the Yavapai County case-rate, he added. He said the state levels are mirroring the county levels.

Most of the reports are recorded when a student, a parent or staff member calls the school and tells them a student is COVID positive. Or a staff member will suspect symptoms and go to the school nurse.

“Our nurse has been doing contact tracing for over a year now,” Westcott said. She contacts the teacher of the students where the positive case was located.

If other students were “by definition” in close contact, “within six feet for 15 minutes for an example,” the nurse calls them in and lets them know they were exposed. “We actually ask them to quarantine,” Westcott said.

The school have found the positive numbers to be consistent through the pandemic.

The numbers of quarantined students and the numbers of positive cases in semester one and semester two of 20/21 and then 21/22 have been within a dozen of one of another.

The school said there were 685 “school exposures” last semester, Westcott said. These are individuals the school has identified as having “close contact” with a positive case.

The school reported 646 total “student quarantines.” Westcott said the school asks students to quarantine, usually after the identification of a positive case and contact tracing.

Masks for shorter quarantine

CDC recommendation guidelines are changing constantly, he pointed out.

The CDC has recently shortened isolation and quarantine periods for people returning after positive a COVID test, but they require that the person wear a mask for five days.

“We’re going to recommend that,” Westcott said referring to the Mingus school board at its next meeting. “But I doubt it will go towards a mandate.

“In those updates, there’s a strong recommendation after a shorter quarantine to continue to wear a mask,” he said. “That’s a part of the update but it’s not a mandate.”

He would much rather tell a student to quarantine for five days than potentially 10.

Even the CDC update may change, he said.

The school has been doing the COVID-numbers running total weekly since August, and it will be updated on Facebook about every two weeks.

They have room-air purifiers in every office space and classroom on campus, and strongly encourage mitigation and protocols. “It does make a difference.”

“We’re trying to keep an even keel,” the superintendent said. “The minute we think we’re really heading out of the woods, it seems like things are going to head south again.”

Email Vyto Starinskas at vstarinskas@verdenews.com or call 928-634-2241, ext. 6031.

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