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MARICOPA — Hundreds of students across Maricopa Unified School District are in quarantine after multiple students and staff tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

The cases began just one day after students and staff returned from fall break, with one Maricopa High School case Oct. 14. That case triggered 184 students and one staff member to quarantine.

A week later, two more cases were reported one day apart at Saddleback Elementary School after an aide in a self-contained autism class allegedly fell ill and went home from work Oct. 20. Twelve students and three staff members were advised to quarantine as a result of that event. The following week, five more cases at Saddleback were reported, bringing the current total to seven cases. The school closed Oct. 27 and will not open again until Nov. 12.

Meanwhile, one case of COVID-19 was reported at Butterfield Elementary School Oct. 26, causing 18 students and six staff members to quarantine. That same day, MHS reported one additional case with 83 students and two staff members in quarantine.

On Wednesday, two more cases at MHS were reported, bringing the total number of quarantined students to 233 along with 12 staff members.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman credits the openness and honesty of staff and parents for the district’s quick response to cases.

“We know that it’s uncomfortable to have to reveal this information to anyone, but it’s the only way that we can respond quickly and effectively, so we’re very grateful to our parents and our staff for keeping us informed so that we can respond,” Lopeman said at Wednesday’s board meeting.

The superintendent also provided updated guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which she said had complicated the contact tracing done by the district.

Close contact is now considered being within 6 feet for 15 minutes cumulatively within 24 hours, meaning a student or staff member who made contact with a COVID-positive individual for five minutes in the morning, three minutes at lunch and seven minutes at pickup would be considered exposed — even if they are wearing a mask.

“I will tell you a day does not go by that a staff member, whether it’s school or department, doesn’t notify us of someone who was exposed and has to quarantine, which is different than having a positive case in our schools,” said Lopeman. “It means that students or staff are having to quarantine because of an exposure external to our district.”

With this constant flow of new information and tracing in the district, Lopeman said the district is attempting to be as open as possible to keep parents, students and the public informed of possible exposures.

The board discussed many different scenarios for possible exposures, but the issue of mitigating spreading and exposure is far from cut and dry.

“I wish we had a set protocol that teachers, if you were exposed, stay home for two weeks. Not, ‘If you feel OK, go to class, if you don’t feel OK, then stay home,’” said board member Torri Anderson.

MUSD is also erring on the side of caution when it comes to shuttering schools in the wake of an outbreak.

The counties are also taking different stances on closing schools. While Maricopa County has yet to shut down a single school for a COVID-19 outbreak despite ongoing quarantine periods, Pinal County has taken a more firm approach, closing San Tan Foothills High School and Combs High School last week after a spreading event.

“I just want to thank you and your staff for being on top of this,” said board President AnnaMarie Knorr to the superintendent and district staff. “I can’t imagine all of the organization and communication and tracking and time and difficult conversations that it takes to manage this properly, above and beyond your regular jobs.”

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.