The Waunakee community has debated the risks and merits of bringing students back into schools in September, and school board members have wrestled with the decision, first opting for all virtual instruction at the end of July, then reversing that vote to pursue half-day in-person instruction for K-4 students one week later.
Throughout the United States – the world, really – school leaders face the same agonizing decision during the COVID-19 pandemic, including one school district superintendent who grew up in Waunakee and graduated with Waunakee High School’s class of 1979.
Now, 41 years later, Jeff Gregorich is the superintendent and high school principal at the Hayden-Winkleman Unified School District in Hayden, Arizona, which, according to census bureau estimates, has a population of 843.
Just about 300 students attend the Gila County school district where, according to Gregorich, everyone knows each other.
Gregorich was one of several people featured in the Washington Post’s “Voices from the Pandemic” oral history series of those affected by COVID-19. His account of trying to safely open schools was featured in the Post’s Aug. 1 edition.
His work is well respected among Arizona school administrators; in 2019, he was named the All-Arizona Superintendent of the Year for Small Districts for the 2018-19 year by the Arizona School Administrators.
As Gregorich related to the Washington Post, Arizona’s governor has told school districts that they must open to students Aug. 17 or lose 5 percent of their funding, upping the stakes for school officials there.
“I run a high-needs district in middle-of-nowhere Arizona,” Gregorich told the Post. “We’re 90 percent Hispanic and more than 90 percent free-and-reduced lunch. These kids need every dollar we can get. But COVID is spreading all over this area and hitting my staff, and now it feels like there’s a gun to my head.”
The Hayden-Winkleman district had already lost one teacher to the virus, but still, at the time of the Aug. 1 interview with the Post, Gregorich and his staff were preparing to reopen schools. Gregorich had just learned that another staff member had tested positive, and he went about contact tracing; another 10 staff members had to be tested and three were positive.
When the Tribune spoke to him on Aug. 5, he planned to meet with his governing board to discuss the possibility of online instruction instead, and the following week, the board will take a vote.
“I will be recommending that we open online, that we don’t take any students on campus. That’s where the challenge is because the governor is going to withhold a level of funding to schools that don’t open and allow students to be on campus,” Gregorich told the Tribune.
Meanwhile, the district is spending more on technology to allow virtual learning, particularly on hotspots to provide internet service to students.
But Gregorich said he is willing to forego a percent of his budget to keep students and families safe.
“We’re a really small, rural district. We’re really close knit, I mean everybody knows everybody. We have multi-generational families living together. Some grandparents are raising children, and if they get sick, those children will have nobody,” Gregorich said.
Because already one teacher has been lost to COVID, the decision seems easier, Gregorich added.
“I just know the pain it’s caused our community. We’re still not done grieving,” he said. Although students and staff have come together online, they haven’t had a chance to grieve physically together, he added.
“We want to come together, and we want to go back to normal, but we can’t wish this virus away. We need a vaccine. We need same-day testing. We need to identify the virus where it’s at and stop it,” Gregorich said, adding some have waited eight or nine days for results after being tested.
As of Aug. 5, 182,203 Arizona residents had tested positive for the virus, with 12.6 percent of tests showing positive results, including 1,698 people who tested positive for COVID 19 on that day.
Gregorich said he sees no way to stop the virus from spreading if students return to classrooms.
Some teachers did return to school over the summer to team up on new technology, Gregorich told the Post. All wore masks, and they checked their temperatures and did not share their devices.
But then one of the teachers began feeling sick.
“I’ve gone over it in my head a thousand times. What precautions did we miss? What more could I have done? I don’t have an answer. These were three responsible adults in an otherwise empty classroom, and they worked hard to protect each other. We still couldn’t control it. That’s what scares me,” Gregorich told the Post.
“I‘m coming from the perspective of having had the loss already. I cannot afford to lose another teacher. I can balance a budget,” he told the Tribune.
Gregorich also understands that the best place for the students to be is in school, but he just doesn’t think he can open safely.
“When you know it’s not safe, but you’re being forced to open the doors and you understand the pressure of the economy, but you have the safety of your children and their parents and their grandparents – that’s what really weighs heavily on the decisions we make,” Gregorich said.