Mark Yslas took over as superintendent of the Agua Fria Union High School District on July 1, when COVID cases were waning, and masks were beginning to slip.
Concerts and parties resumed. Headlines proclaimed that life was going ‘back to normal’一and it looked that way too as cases flatlined from the end of March to the beginning of July. For a few brief months, life was becoming a little more normal for many Arizonans.
Fast-forward to August and September and public health experts are warning that Arizona is in for yet another wave of COVID. The state averages 3,000 daily cases, and percent positivity climbed from 5% to 10% from the beginning of July to the end of August.
Schools have not fared well in terms of case numbers with 166 campuses in Maricopa County are experiencing outbreaks, including all five of AFUHSD’s traditional high schools, and pediatric hospitalizations are on the rise.
Angry parents on both sides of the mask debate are showing up to board meetings with demands, and school district policy makers, saddled with competing messages from health officials and the Arizona legislature, are in a no-win situation. The county health department recommends students wear masks, while a state law is ready to take effect at the end of September that will prevent schools from requiring face coverings.
This is the set of circumstances Yslas finds himself in just two months on the job and one month into the fall semester. It isn’t easy, even for a man who’s worked in education for nearly three decades.
He struggles with what he calls the “balancing act” of keeping campuses safe, but also providing a sense of normalcy for students.
“Being the Agua Fria superintendent during a pandemic and COVID was really tough,” Yslas said. “We really wanted to bring back as much of a normal type of environment for our kids, and the great high school experience as much as possible.”
The desire for normalcy appears to have won out in the balancing act. Yslas decided to make campuses mask-optional, like many other districts in the county.
He also took the more unusual step of not enforcing quarantine measures for students exposed to COVID-19 until Aug. 23, when the county health department made it a requirement.
It may be hard for some to understand why a school superintendent would cut quarantine measures at a time when COVID cases are surging. But for Yslas, giving kids a normal high school experience is paramount.
For him, touchstones of the American high school experience, like homecoming dances, football games and enjoying cafeteria food with friends are not superficial, but pivotal moments in a young person’s life.
His COVID-19 policies are guided by the desire to prevent any further impediments to that experience.
“I truly believe that this generation of high school students had a piece of their life taken away from them,” Yslas said. “The experiences, the relationships you build in high school, the learning you go through...is critical in (student’s) development.”
“Our decisions will not be political”
Yslas is seeking to restore some high school moments that were lost to COVID last year.
This year, Agua Fria district students will have a homecoming dance that will be held outdoors. Football games and other events will continue with masks optional.
Yslas said his COVID policies have drawn a “mixed” but “mostly positive” response from parents.
He makes clear his policies are just that — his own. District COVID protocols are “not something that's the responsibility of the governing board,” he said. “It wasn't ‘the governing board decided to do these things,’ it's ‘Superintendent Mark Yslas made these decisions,’” he said.
While the debate surrounding masks has become politicized, perhaps especially in Arizona, Yslas was careful to mention that politics do not enter into the equation. He said his mask policy was decided independent of events at the state capitol.
“Our decisions will not be political. They will be based on what we think is best for kids,” he said.
The superintendent seems to know that you can’t please everyone, especially in a seemingly impossible situation like this.
“Sometimes those decisions such as ‘Can we have a homecoming dance?’ depending on what you believe, may seem like an easy decision,” Yslas said. "No, that could be a super spreader. Do not do that. Or it could be yes, we don't want you to miss your homecoming dance...because that might be something you remember the rest of your life.”
COVID cases higher than previous year
Yslas said he knew going into fall semester that COVID policies may need to be recalibrated “depending on our current realities.” But he also said he “did not recognize...where we would be in terms of positivity rate in our schools.”
When classes began at the beginning of August, positivity rates were at an all-time high — much higher than the cases last year which caused campuses to shut down.
But schools remain open, probably because administrators want to avoid the interruptions of the previous fall semester — and understandably so.
After a spring derailed by COVID-19, the district started out slow in the fall with full-time distance learning at the beginning of August, eventually transitioning to a hybrid learning model on Oct. 12.
The district’s cautious transition to normalcy was shattered after less than a month.
By Nov. 9, district administration under the leadership of then-superintendent Dr. Dennis Runyan, made the decision to transition again to full-time distance learning, after a “resurgence” of cases.
At the time, the district was experiencing about 15 cases district-wide, just one or a handful of cases at each campus. But for the past few weeks of in-person learning, Agua Fria district has consistently reported over 100 cases--an average of 20 per campus.
The district’s also reported an estimated 700 students in active quarantine as of 7 a.m. on Aug. 31.
Agua Fria is not alone. Schools across the county are experiencing outbreaks that dwarf last year’s case numbers that caused schools to shutter. But this year, they remain open.
Litchfield Elementary School District, for example, reported far more COVID cases in the first two-weeks of in-person learning than they had last year.
Teachers, administrators and parents found many students struggled with virtual learning, and not just academically. Multiple studies have shown the isolation from teachers and peers combined with other COVID-related stressors are contributing to an increase in depression and anxiety among children, especially adolescents.
When weighing the safety of his students, Yslas said he takes into account not only their physical well-being, but their mental well-being, too.
“We wanted the kids to be reconnected with their high school campus and their teachers, and to re-engage in all the really cool things that we could do at school,” Yslas said.
“Our approach is just trying to recognize how tough it’s been for these kids to be out, and to miss their school,” Yslas said, adding that for so many kids, school really is a home away from home.
To help students transition back to campus, the district hired two student support specialists at each of their five traditional campuses. Their role is to help identify and engage with students who may be reticent to seek help with a counselor, district officials said.
“We have to...recognize there'll be more conflict,” on campuses Yslas said. But through the student support specialists and counseling departments, the district is “hoping to provide more support than discipline.” Students with mental health needs can be referred by a counselor or social worker to Touchstone Health Services, a private company the district has a partnership with.
On Sept. 3, four weeks into the fall semester, 85 students and 11 staff members reported active cases of COVID. Those numbers are down from the high of over 140 cases, but still substantial. Even so, Yslas doesn’t want his students to lose any more time.
“We don't want COVID to dominate our world. We want the high school experience to be as fun and as exciting as it was prior to COVID,” Yslas said. “We as adults have to recognize that we have that responsibility, particularly as educators, to make (high school) the best years of their life.”
Madeline Ackley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or found on Twitter @Mkayackley.