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Pingerellis: Understanding our uncertainty and fears in K-12 education during the COVID-19 pandemic


Concerns over COVID-19 and the reopening of Arizona schools are escalating dramatically. In unprecedented numbers, parents are reaching out to school board members and superintendents to voice their concerns. One Peoria Unified School District parent, in particular, expressed what parents and students are feeling.

"Now we have daily tears, daily arguments, daily problems connecting to the internet, daily frustrations, daily headaches, daily stress, and daily we are living in an education hell," the parent stated. "My students who were once eager to learn, now sit hours a day staring listlessly at a screen with their eyes glazed over. We are three weeks into the school year, and the fire they once had for learning is gone. They are not learning or engaging as they should, especially my youngest learners. Online school is not working, it is destroying them. It is destroying a love of learning."

Our parents, students, and neighborhoods are caught between the unknowns of a highly contagious virus and the economic and emotional consequences of social isolation. At the beginning of the pandemic, our medical and scientific experts pressed for quarantines and social distancing to slow the spread and save lives. Because so little was known about the virus, it was wise to be cautious while gathering the resources to combat the epidemic. But given the resulting economic and emotional calamity that has resulted, is it wise to continue on this course? Science can answer some of our questions, but not all.

By its very nature, the models and predictions of biological systems contain assumptions because of the enormous number of physical, genetic, and environmental variables involved. The COVID-19 pandemic was sudden, and the disease mechanisms and mitigation practices were poorly understood in the scientific community, so even the experts disagreed on how to interpret the available data. This holds true today, because reliable information requires significantly more testing, eliminating false-positive test results, and improving accuracy in reporting. 

Given this dilemma, we can’t rely entirely on the state metrics. We must also make judgements based on subjective social factors and past experience. To lend perspective to this issue, we’re providing links to the following information to evaluate the best course forward:

  • Age-based Arizona and U.S. mortality statistics that includes data for COVID-19, Influenza, Pneumonia and all causes of death;
  • Increased domestic violence, suicide and depression risks associated with COVID-19;
  • Maricopa Country criteria mapping for COVID-19 school openings.




To summarize, the CDC data shows total U.S. deaths from Pneumonia and Influenza exceed COVID-19 deaths in all age brackets. In Arizona, COVID-19 deaths are higher for infants and adults up to age 54, but influenza and pneumonia deaths are higher for all other age brackets. Between Feb. 1 and Aug. 15, our state has lost 11 individuals under age 25 from COVID-19 and 930 from all causes.

The following psychological and domestic violence information highlights the consequences of social isolation.

  • 25.5% of 18-24 year olds have seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days, while 24.7% have started or increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions.
  • Domestic violence and substance abuse increases rapidly as psychological stressors rise.



A review of this information suggests the overall risk of our students dying from suicide, domestic violence or substance abuse caused by COVID-19 social isolation are likely higher than the risk of dying from the virus itself. Especially when we consider recent advancements in therapeutics. Even so, we need to proceed cautiously because portions of our school districts are adjacent to a higher-risk community of retirees.

This set of circumstances requires us to understand and calm our fears, so we can make level-headed decisions to protect and support the students and individuals in our community. Our decisions must take into account those with higher risk of infection and those experiencing infection-related stressors because both can lead to loss of life or permanent injury. In addition, protracted school closures will cause long-term learning deficiencies for our students.

School board members are responsible for deciding the school reopening question, but it is not just a routine decision about familiar education issues. And while the state and county have provided guidance — their metrics to reopen schools contain uncertainty and do not consider the long-term collateral damage to our community. School board members must, therefore, rely on moral and practical judgements to weigh all available information. They must determine which scenario presents the lowest risk to the lives of our students and broader community.

Given the scientific uncertainties and conflicting narratives from our experts, a decision ultimately becomes one based on what each school board member believes will provide the greatest protection and support for all involved. We hope every member of our community will also weigh these considerations and ultimately choose what is best for themselves, their children and their community.

As board members, our conclusion is to open our schools. This decision is based on both social factors and the “moderate” risk metric provided by the county. We also believe school openings should prioritize the needs of:

  • elementary and special ed Students. K-4 children and special ed students do not do well in virtual learning environments. Delays in their education have serious, life-long effects.
  • parents and students with life-circumstances that require on-site learning. This includes workers who cannot stay home with their children and individuals experiencing COVID-19 related stressors.
  • teachers, school personnel and students who are at-risk for contracting COVID-19 or who have vulnerable family members.
  • Career Technical Education students who require on-site, hands-on training.

Overall infections rates are declining, so we can be optimistic about beating the virus. Unquestionably, families have faced both personal tragedy and economic calamity. While we are all concerned about the risks we are facing, this concern can also bring us together and show us the best way forward.

Editor's note: Beverly Pingerelli is a Peoria Unified School District Governing Board Member and Peter Pingerelli, PhD, is a West-MEC Governing Board Member.