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CGUHSD students return to campus in modified learning setting

CASA GRANDE — The Casa Grande Union High School District welcomed students back on campus Monday with a transition into a hybrid model of in-person learning.

According to a statement from Superintendent Steve Bebee, 60% of students in the district chose to return to school for the modified in-person schedule, alternating with computer learning at home.

“We are excited to offer a modified school schedule that allows for only half of the students at each campus to be on site on any given day,” Bebee said. “Those students who have chosen to learn virtually will remain on the schedule they have been following since school started through the end of the semester.”

As data continues to be released by the Arizona Department of Health Services, the district will keep families informed as to how the spring semester will look for students.

According to a document by ADHS, of the 15 counties in the state, 13 of them are recommended to use a hybrid setting, which includes Pinal County.

Jennifer Kortsen is a career and technical education teacher at Vista Grande High School.

“It was so good to see all the kids in person that I’ve been teaching online for the last few weeks,” she said. “The kids have adapted so well — especially my freshmen, who have had to learn Blackboard and PowerSchool along with other programs from home. It’s been frustrating and confusing at times, but keeping a positive attitude has made all the difference.”

According to Kortsen, all the students returned ready to learn with masks on.

“There is hand sanitizer in every room, teachers spray down desks and chairs with cleaning products between classes, doors are propped open for air flow and so students are not touching handles. I heard no complaints from students today as they all complied with the expectations,” Kortsen said.

The hope is to eventually allow students to attend in-person classes everyday, but the district will wait until the metrics say it is safe to do so.

“While these are unprecedented times, it is our desire that someday soon all students who want to be back on campus to learn daily will be able to do so,” Bebee said in an earlier statement. “I hope that all of you who are coming back to our campuses on Sept. 28 have a very smooth transition back to in-person school.”

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CG tot receives special wish from area law enforcement, Make-a-Wish

CASA GRANDE — Soon-to-be 4-year-old Asher Hamilton wore an oversized blue “Wish Kid” T-shirt Saturday morning as a procession of law enforcement and public safety vehicles drove by his birthday party, with lights and sirens engaged, and a helicopter circled overhead.

“He loves sirens, lights and anything that spins and makes noise,” said his mother, Ashley Hamilton of Casa Grande. “He’s so happy right now.”

The event, which also included a helicopter ride in the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s search-and-rescue helicopter, Ranger 1, was arranged by Make-A-Wish Arizona.

For Asher, who was born with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis, a rare immune system disease, the day was a dream come true, his mother said.

He has been in and out of hospitals much of his life undergoing various procedures and treatments, including 11 rounds of chemotherapy. At about age 2, he had a bone marrow transplant.

“He’s had so many IVs and medications,” Hamilton said. “He’s been poked and prodded so much he’s used to it. He’s good about going to the doctor’s office and the hospital. When we have to go in, he leads the way.”

Asher is now in remission and is being weaned from some of his medications.

“He had to grow up fast being treated for this serious illness at such a young age. But it’s awesome watching him grow and get better,” Hamilton said. “I feel very blessed and thankful that he’s still with us.”

Asher, who also has autism, turns 4 in early October. He spent much of Saturday morning surrounded by cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and great-grandparents celebrating his birthday at his cousin’s home in the Mission Valley subdivision.

The helicopter ride and drive-by of public safety vehicles was a surprise.

Among the agencies taking part in the drive-by event and other activities were Casa Grande Fire Department, Casa Grande Police Department, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office as well as DPS.

“All those days in the hospital, one thing that brought him joy was the thought of being out of the hospital and getting to be outside with his family. And then COVID hit and being inside was the best possible decision for him,” said Hollie Costello, vice president of marketing and public relations for Make-A-Wish Arizona.

The organization worked to create a COVID-safe wish for Asher that would give him a chance to safely enjoy the outdoors and get away from his regular routine, Costello said.

As well as arranging the helicopter ride and the public safety drive-by event, Make-A-Wish Arizona also arranged for the family to spend five days in a cabin near Flagstaff, visiting Bearizona Wildlife Park and enjoying the outdoors.

“He’s never been past Phoenix,” Hamilton said. “He is going to love going camping.”

Make-A-Wish Arizona works to make wishes come true for kids between the ages of 2 and 18 who are fighting a critical illness.

Due to COVID-19, many wishes were postponed in the spring, especially those that were travel-related or involved large gatherings of people.

“We’re still not doing wishes that involve trains or planes,” Costello said. “But we are beginning to ramp back up again. And DPS has always been one of our big partners. They’re amazing, always going above and beyond.”

Before COVID-19, Make-A-Wish was granting more than 25 wishes every month. It’s now scheduling about 10 each month.

“During COVID, we did grant wishes like online shopping sprees,” Costello said. “Whenever possible, we don’t want to postpone happiness.”

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New US citizen refugees excited for first presidential vote

PHOENIX — They came fleeing war and persecution in countries like Myanmar, Eritrea and Iraq, handpicked by the United States for resettlement under longstanding humanitarian traditions.

Now, tens of thousands of refugees welcomed into the U.S. during the Obama administration are American citizens, voting the first time in what could be the most consequential presidential contest of their lifetimes.

With some states already sending out early ballots, the first-time voters from Arizona to Florida are excited but mindful of their responsibility in helping to choose the country’s next leader. The winner will decide the future of the very resettlement program they benefitted from and that President Donald Trump has hollowed out and could halt altogether in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1.

“Most refugees come to this county escaping political systems where the government is not their friend,” said Hans Van de Weerd, vice president of resettlement for the International Rescue Committee, a top agency that brings refugees to the U.S. “To have their voices be heard is very powerful.”

Republican and Democratic administrations resettled an average 95,000 refugees annually over four decades, but the Trump government whittled that down to a cap of 18,000. Only about half that number have come in this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

That downward trend seems likely to continue if Trump is reelected; his Democratic challenger Joe Biden has promised to pump the annual refugee goal to 125,000.

There are no voter registration figures for refugees, but the National Partnership for New Americans predicted that 860,000 immigrants of all kinds would gain that right this year by becoming citizens even in the face of barriers like an 83% increase in naturalization fees, from $640 to $1,170.

Through its citizenship classes, the International Rescue Committee has helped around 6,000 refugees and other newcomers become Americans each of the last few years. Other groups have also helped refugees become naturalized.

Department of Homeland Security figures in recent years have shown refugees and asylum-seekers are the immigrants most likely to gain citizenship, with a naturalization rate of over 70% during their first decade in the country. Refugees can apply for citizenship after five years as permanent residents.

Once they become Americans, they can register and vote.

“So many want to vote this time,” said Basma Alawee, a refugee herself and an organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition who has been holding webinars helping other refugees prepare for Election Day.

Born in Iraq and now a U.S. citizen living in Jacksonville, Florida, Alawee said she also plans to cast her first presidential ballot Nov. 3.

Here are a few other refugees around the United States voting for the first time:

  • Bilal Alobaidi recalls elections in Iraq under Saddam Hussein when only the leader’s name was on the ballot. The only possible choices were “yes” or “no.”

“And if you said ‘no,’ something bad could happen to you,” said Alobaidi, who arrived in the U.S. in December 2013.

He was resettled in Phoenix, a desert city with sweltering weather like that of his hometown Mosul, and was naturalized last year.

A former social worker with the International Organization for Migration, Alobaidi now works for the International Rescue Committee, helping other refugees in Arizona find housing and other services.

Alobaidi said he looks forward to voting for the candidate he chooses.

“This is the first time I will practice democracy,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

  • Bawi Uk was a small child when his parents fled Myanmar, leaving him and his siblings to be cared for by their maternal grandmother.

UK said the family suffered discrimination as Christians in a predominantly Buddhist nation. The military government was also trying to forcibly conscript his father.

“To run for office, you had to be a Buddhist; to rent a house, you had to be Buddhist,” said UK, a social work student at Rhode Island College and a youth leader at the Refugee Dream Center, an advocacy organization in Providence.

  • Nada Al-Rubaye said she never voted in her native Iraq, which she fled after her oldest son and several other family members were killed in the country’s widespread violence.

The Baghdad-born artist and another son spent a few years in Turkey, but in 2013 were settled in Phoenix.

A U.S. citizen since September 2019, she now paints landscapes featuring the red rock outcroppings of her adopted Arizona and sells her paintings and jewelry online.

“I am so excited!” she said about the upcoming election, flashing a broad smile. “It’s so important for a person to feel like they belong to a country.”

  • Habtom Gezhey fled Eritrea after being conscripted to serve an indefinite number of years in the military.

Gezhey initially lived in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia before being resettled in Florida in 2012.

Now a truck driver hauling goods across the U.S., Gezhey lives in Jacksonville with his wife, Eyerusalem, whom he met at the camp, and their two young children.

“I’m ready to vote,” said Gezhey. “We had no election in Eritrea, no Constitution.”

  • Jad “Jay” Jawad was 17 when his family sought refuge in the U.S. from death threats and conflict in Iraq.

The Saddam Hussein government had targeted Jawad’s father as a manager at a hotel frequented by the U.S. military. The family resettled in Phoenix, where they all became U.S. citizens.

Jawad now runs a popular crepe restaurant in an upscale mall. He and his wife, also an American citizen born in Iraq, are expecting a baby next spring.

“When we left Baghdad, there was no democracy,” he said. “Here, you can be part of the change.”

  • Lian Kual never cast a ballot in Myanmar, where elections were criticized as fraudulent during decades of military rule.

In 2008, Kual initially fled his country for Malaysia, and in 2014 was resettled in Salt Lake City, where he works on the overnight shift stocking shelves at Walmart. He was naturalized this year.

“I feel so free to be part of the United States of America,” he said. “I already registered (to vote) at the DMV, and now I’m waiting for my ballot. It’s a really big deal.”

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Study suggests Arizona isn't ready for schools to reopen

PHOENIX — A whole set of factors may make Arizona one of the most dangerous places in the country for children to go back to school, according to a new report.

The financial advice site WalletHub says its analysis of illnesses, spending and other classroom issues finds some things that Arizona appears to be doing well. That includes having comprehensive guidance for school reopening and even the fact that, in comparison to other states, relatively few youngsters take a school bus.

And the report notes that Arizona currently has a far below average likelihood of COVID-19 infections among all ages.

But against that, WalletHub says the state’s rate of 1,225 coronavirus cases per 100,000 children as of Aug. 27 — the date used in the report — is the fourth highest rate in the country. And the death rate among children also is in the top 20%.

Patrick Ptak, press aide to Gov. Doug Ducey, said that’s not a fair comparison.

Arizona considers anyone younger than 20 to be a child. And even Diana Polk, spokeswoman for WalletHub, acknowledged that her data includes some states where reports on children take in only those through age 14.

That, however, still leaves the fact that these rankings are based on ratios per 100,000 residents in the same age category.

Ptak, however, dismissed the report entirely as lacking scientific and public health merit.

“The fact is, Arizona schools are handling the pandemic as well or better than any other state,” he said, citing increased COVID-19 testing and recent numbers which put the rate of people of all ages testing positive below 5%.

But state schools chief Kathy Hoffman is not ready to say that everything is fine.

“We want our lives to go back to normal,” she said. “But we are still in a pandemic and we need to take this really seriously because our behaviors today can really have a strong impact of those around us and those we care about.”

She has her own theories about the numbers and the rankings. One, she suggested, could be that Arizona’s high illness and death rate is what happened in May and June — after Ducey lifted restrictions and the illnesses spiked — and less reflective of current conditions.

For the time being, Hoffman said she is relying more on the “metrics” developed by the state Department of Health Services which provide a much more current picture of risks. And those numbers, she noted, say it is now OK for schools in 14 of the state’s 15 counties to begin “hybrid” instruction, a combination of in-person and online learning.

Only Graham County is listed as needing to keep teaching at the virtual level.

Hoffman said that there are other things going on in Arizona which could mitigate the risk of sending kids back to school. She said the state is requiring anyone age 5 and older to be wearing a mask and mandating “social distancing” of desks, all things that should help reduce the risk of spread of the disease.

But the WalletHub rankings are about more than infection rates, whether current or historic.

One is that Arizona has fewer nurses per student than most other states.

“To me this points to the lack of sustained investment in our schools,” Hoffman said, citing similar shortages in counselors and social workers.

There’s also the fact that, as of last year, Arizona as of 2019 had the highest number of students for each available teacher. Class size also was near the top of the chart.

That has been a perennial problem. But the state schools chief said that, in an ironic and unexpected way, that appears to be taking care of itself, at least for the time being.

“A pretty high number of parents are choosing to keep their kids at home for online distance learning,” she said. “So there’s already a reduced number of children because of parents’ family choices to continue with distance learning.”

Along the same lines, Ptak said Arizona has something else going for it as parents make decisions about what to do with their children as the pandemic continues: school choice. He said that includes not just traditional public schools but other alternatives, including charter schools, which may be offering entirely online courses if that’s what families want.

Not everything in the WalletHub analysis of the risks of sending kids back to school safely is related directly to infection rates or even the education system and how it is funded.

For example the analysis says that one child out of every five does not have a room at home of his or her own, increasing the risk of spread to siblings. WalletHub said no state did worse.

And, at the other end of the age spectrum, nearly 6.2% of seniors — those most at risk — share a home with school-age children.