Campo Verde High School freshman Grace Thompson

Campo Verde High School freshman Grace Thompson tried to hold back tears of frustration as she asked the GPS Governing Board to keep classrooms open.

With Campo Verde High School back in hybrid learning last week due to COVID-19 cases on campus, freshman Grace Thompson made it clear to the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board that she wasn’t happy with it.

The board earlier this month set triggers for  moving schools back to hybrid and virtual learning in an effort to stop the coronavirus’ spread in the GPS district.

“Hybrid learning does not work,” Grace, 14, told the board. “The system that you have put in place is ineffective. No one is learning anything. Last year I was a straight “A” student.”

Campo Verde students are expected back on campus full-time this week after going to the hybrid model for 14 days.

 The board earlier this month approved thresholds for the type of learning that would take place on an individual school campus.

If COVID-19 cases per week on the district dashboard are higher than 1 percent at a high school based on school population, 1.5 percent at a junior high campus and 2 percent at an elementary school, that campus would go to the hybrid-learning model. 

Canyon Valley High School and the RISE Junior High program – because of their size – would need five and three cases, respectively, for their triggers to activate.

Under hybrid learning, students are split alphabetically into two groups that then are in class either Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays with virtual learning for all on Wednesdays.

What pushed Campo Verde, with 1,929 students and staff, into hybrid learning Nov. 9 was the 20 active cases on campus the prior week.  As of last week, Campo Verde reported two active cases on the dashboard, which is updated every Wednesday. No campuses last week met the triggers.

Grace, who at times became tearful, tore into the board.

“Online orchestra, online weight lifting?” she said. “Do you not see how ridiculous this is? I know that students at my school are catching COVID but they aren’t dying.

“They feel sick for a few days and then they come back and they’re fine, which I might remind you happens to most people on a yearly basis. This is not a reason to ruin education, create mental health issues in hundreds of children and teenagers and take away personal freedoms from the people who put you in these positions.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most children with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms at all but some can become severely ill.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reported so far over 1 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 and that the number of new child cases reported for Nov. 12, nearly 112,000, was by far the highest weekly increase since the pandemic began.  

And, in Arizona as of Nov. 12, there have been 574 hospitalizations of children, 0-19 years old, which was 2.6 percent of the cumulative total for hospitalizations of all ages in the state, the professional association said. Additionally, nine child deaths related to COVID-19 were reported in Arizona.

Grace told the board that keeping students away from school harmed their mental well-being, pointing to herself and her siblings.

“Life is not about being afraid of death,” she said. “The students of Gilbert Public Schools want to be in school. Teenagers are begging to be back in school.

“Stop taking away their right to choose. You have done enough by providing options for the people who don’t want to attend school. Now don’t take away the choice from people who do,” she continued.

“Stop using fear to control and punish people even if you feel like you should. That isn’t your job. You should be focused on the education of your students but right now you are literally taking direct action to hinder it.”

Amy Johansson also spoke in favor of keeping schools open during the public comment portion of the meeting. Board members are not allowed to respond. 

Johansson said her three sons graduated from Gilbert High School and her daughter is now a senior there.

Johansson said she was pleased with how the district has been handling the pandemic and felt the board members had the children’s best interest at heart.

That said, she asserted students need to be in school.

“Yes, the cases are going up,” Johansson said. “But it’s not spreading at our schools. It’s not spreading between the kids and the teachers. I feel like we are free to choose and the ones that do want to keep their kids home, they should have that opportunity. But our kids need to be in school.”

Johannson said she worked for the district for five years and is now in the private sector working with youth on a daily basis.

“They’re struggling,” she said. “There’s anxiety, there’s depression, there’s suicidal. There are other factors going on and we need to support children.”

Her daughter, Carlee Johansson, sent a letter to the board. The 17-year-old is an honors student who has scrupulously followed the protocols in place to limit the virus’ spread.

“I’m done with adults making decisions for me that have absolutely no idea what I’m going through or about what other kids my age are going through that are in worse situations,” she wrote, continuing:

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘If you want schools to reopen, you don’t care about the innocent lives that will be lost.’ Actually, I do. I care about the individuals being left out of the conversation.”

Carlee wrote that students secluded in their homes are suffering depression and anxiety or other mental illnesses.

 “I care about the scared, innocent children being sexually, mentally and physically abused by family members or friends inside of their home with nowhere to escape,” she said.

 She said she missed school and seeing her friends and asked the board not to take away her right to go to class in person.

GPS administrators review health data from the state and county daily and on Wednesdays, they and county health officials determine if it’s necessary for a school to move temporarily to hybrid learning. 

If the decision is made to do so, parents are notified Thursday and the campus move to the learning model on the following Monday.

Should cases decrease during the two weeks of hybrid learning, students and staff would return to in-person instruction.  

While in hybrid learning, students remain with their classroom teacher instead of moving to the district’s Global Academy, which is fulltime virtual instruction.

 Should two of the three state health benchmarks reach the substantial risk level for two weeks, the board will meet to decide if the entire district moves temporarily to virtual learning.

The state recently revised its recommended criteria for when districts transition to virtual learning. Previously just one of the three health benchmarks –  two consecutive weeks with new case rates below 100 per 100,000 people; two consecutive weeks with 10 percent or lower positivity and two consecutive weeks with percent of hospital visits showing symptoms of COVID-like illness below 10 percent – had to be in the red or substantial category to trigger a district’s return to virtual learning. Now all three benchmarks need to be in the red for that to happen.

According to Maricopa County’s dashboard last Thursday, Gilbert Public School district was in the red for one benchmark and yellow or moderate spread in the two others but all three had seen increases from the week prior.

For cases per 100 people, it was 219.5 last Thursday in the district’s boundary, an increase from 154.3 the week before. And for percent positivity, it was 8.03 percent compared with 7.08 percent the week prior and for COVID-like illnesses, it was 5.03 percent compared with 4 percent.

Higley Unified School District also saw its numbers rising.

Its cases per 100,00 people was red for the two weeks with 307.9 last week compared with 149.72 the previous week and the percent positivity rose from 7.3 percent to 9.5 percent last week.