Southwest Valley schools react to new CDC guidelines

Administrators adhering to their established safety protocols


New coronavirus guidance issued March 19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows schools to seat masked-up students 3 feet apart instead of 6 feet in classrooms, but that doesn’t mean local administrators are throwing caution to the wind, especially in middle and high schools.

The updated guidelines say spacing in middle and high school classrooms can be reduced if there is not a high level of community transmission of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. The CDC also advised schools can remove plastic shields and other barriers between desks, but recommended students and others stay 6 feet apart at sporting events, assemblies, lunch and activities where a lot of people are talking, cheering or singing to minimize contact with droplets that may contain the virus.

Teachers and other adults should continue to stay at least 6 feet from others, CDC advised.

So what does that mean for Southwest Valley schools? Independent Newsmedia talked to Agua Fria Union High School, and Litchfield and Avondale elementary district officials to get their take. All said they will continue to follow strict safety protocols that include wearing masks, hand-washing and sanitizing and cleaning/disinfecting throughout their schools.

Tamee Gressett
Tamee Gressett
Dr. Jodi Gunning
Dr. Jodi Gunning
Dr. Betsy Hargrove
Dr. Betsy Hargrove

Agua Fria Union High School District

“Although the CDC has updated their guidelines to allow 3 feet instead of 6 feet between desks, we will continue to distance our desks as far apart as feasible,” said Tamee Gressett, director II of student services/district athletics and Title IX coordinator for Agua Fria Union High School District, whose students returned to the classroom full-time March 15 for the first time since last fall.

“Depending on class size, we may be able to continue with 6 feet, but in others we will need to have desks 3 feet apart,” said Ms. Gressett, who oversees the district’s COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

“Classes such as theater and choir will still need to distance themselves 6 feet apart,” she said. “We also want to encourage as much physical distancing as possible during lunch when students are eating.

She said students’ return to their respective campuses has gone well, noting that more than 58% of AFUSD families are enrolled in the in-person model, with the remaining students attending classes online.

AFUHSD operates five high schools and two alternative schools — Agua Fria, Canyon View, Desert Edge, Millennium and Verrado,  and Coldwater and New Directions — serving approximately 8,700 students in Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear, Litchfield Park, Waddell and part of Glendale.

“We need to thank our students for following our protocols and helping maintain a safe campus,” Ms. Gressett said. “We have seen a lot of smiles this week.”

Litchfield Elementary School District

“We are thrilled to have students back in classrooms and remain vigilant about our strong mitigation plans,” Superintendent Dr. Jodi Gunning said. “We are especially grateful for our frequent consultations with Dr. Ana Moran, a highly regarded infectious disease doctor who also serves as the medical director for Healthy Verify. Her expertise as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of COVID has been extremely helpful.”

Dr. Gunning credited students, staff and families for adhering to health and safety protocols.

“Their efforts to mask up, wash hands and avoid gatherings is allowing our students to come to school,” she said.

LESD operates 11 elementary schools, five middle schools and one Digital Learning Academy serving about 12,000 preschool through eighth-grade students in Avondale, Buckeye, Goodyear and Litchfield Park.

Over the course of several weeks, the district transitioned students back to classrooms full-time beginning with kindergarten through second-graders Feb. 22, third- through fifth-graders March 1 and sixth- through eighth-graders March 15.

More than 75% of district students are enrolled in the in-person learning model, with the remainder attending classes online.

Earlier this month, the district named veteran LESD educator Marlene Capristo as the first principal of its new Digital Learning Academy, making it the 104-year-old district’s 17th school.

Avondale Elementary School District

“AESD is committed to ensuring a safe learning and work environment for our community. We will continue with our mitigations strategies in our Healthy Verify protocol to include universal masks and increased hand-washing and sanitation schedules,” Superintendent Dr. Betsy Hargrove said. “While the social distancing recommendation has been reduced and provides additional flexibility, making certain we minimize risk whenever feasible will remain our focus.”

The district, which serves more than 5,800 preschool through eighth-grade students in Avondale and Goodyear, welcomed students back to the classroom full-time March 15. They had been on a hybrid schedule since mid-December.

“Welcoming back students of families who have selected the in person model has been incredible! It was reminiscent of the first day of school and yet we were able to jump right in with continuing the powerful learning from throughout the year,” Dr. Hargrove said.

As of Friday, 3,686 students were enrolled in the in-person learning model, 1,558 in the flex model and 564 in digital learning

Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at or 760-963-1697.