Things won’t be quite like they were before the COVID-19 outbreak forced them to close their doors in March, but Arizona’s K-12 schools will once again be open to students when the upcoming school year begins in late July.
Gov. Doug Ducey announced at a press conference Thursday that the school year will begin as previously scheduled for Arizona’s 1.1 million students.
Schools, which have been closed since March 15, will have to operate much differently than they did prior to the pandemic. The Arizona Department of Health Services will issue guidelines for the reopened schools. Dr. Cara Christ, the agency’s director, said the “new normal” at schools will include frequent handwashing and sanitizing, no more mixing of students at lunch and no big assemblies.
Ducey said school districts will also have plenty of flexibility, with digital and distance learning for students and teachers who are particularly vulnerable to the disease.
“It will look different. It will feel different. But the idea is kids will have a more traditional routine school day, where possible and safe,” Ducey said on Thursday.
Kathy Hoffman, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, will release guidance for K-12 schools on Monday.
That guidance is the result of a task force that Hoffman convened earlier this month and was “created by a broad group of education leaders, public health officials, and stakeholders, will provide adaptable, flexible recommendations, considerations, and resources for districts and charters to plan for the upcoming academic year,” the Arizona Department of Education said.
Hoffman had been planning prior to Ducey’s announcement for the school year to begin as scheduled. Richie Taylor, a spokesman for the superintendent, said the Department of Education will be monitoring the COVID situation to ensure schools can reopen safely. But schools need to prepare for the school year.
“If the situation is such that we can’t reopen, then we’ll be making different decisions in July in August. But we need to be planning for that possibility,” Taylor said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control lists the reopening of public schools as part of Phase II of its pandemic reopening guidelines. Ducey acknowledged that Arizona is still in Phase I, but said schools must have time to prepare so they can reopen safely starting in late July.
Christ emphasized that schools provide much more for students than just education, such as nutrition and physical activity, making their reopening for the next school year all the more important.
“We are looking at it from a holistic public health approach,” she said.
While parents await the beginning of the school, they’ll be able to send their kids to summer school, summer camp, Little League and other youth activities, which Ducey announced will be permitted to reopen.
As with schools, the Department of Health Services has crafted guidelines for those activities, including limitations on the number of parents and spectators who can attend, physical distancing before and after games, restrictions on the sharing of snacks and drinks, and disinfecting shared equipment before and after games.
A live-caller poll of 400 Arizonans conducted by the lobbying and consulting firm HighGround showed that 52% of respondents support allowing students to return to school in the fall, while 34% oppose the idea. Support for resuming school in the fall was highest among respondents who had children, 57% of whom said kids should go back when the school year begins.