Public schools will be allowed to determine on their own when to start in-person instruction for the upcoming K-12 school year based on a set of benchmarks that will be established by state health officials instead of being tied to the Aug. 17 start date that Gov. Doug Ducey set last month.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman joined Ducey at his weekly press conference on the COVID-19 crisis, where they jointly announced that the Arizona Department of Health Services will establish a set of criteria for school districts to determine when it is safe for them to reopen their campuses, which have been closed since March. School districts will decide for themselves when to resume in-person education for the 2020-21 school year, though they all must offer some kind of on-site instruction starting on Aug. 17, when Ducey had previously set the delayed school year to begin.
Adults on reopened school campuses will be required to wear masks at all times. Students will also have to wear masks, though there will be a number of exemptions for them. For example, students won’t be required to wear face coverings when they can socially distance, when they’re outside in a playground setting and during breaks in which they can remove their masks in a safe environment.
“While much of the public discussion has been focused on a date certain, the focus needs to be on ensuring that Arizona students have a successful academic year. The goal is to provide our students with rigorous instruction and consistency in learning while prioritizing their health and safety,” Ducey said. “This is the greatest challenge to public education in our lifetime, and Arizona has the opportunity to lead the nation.”
ADHS will release its criteria for the safe reopening of schools by Aug. 7, though the agency could have those benchmarks ready for the public sooner. But it will be local school boards that make the call on whether to reopen their campuses to students. Ducey and Hoffman emphasized that their plan will grant school districts a great deal of flexibility.
Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said there will likely be a number of benchmarks to determine when schools can reopen safely. One of those benchmarks will likely be a decrease in the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive. Christ noted that the World Health Organization determined that less than 5% is a good indicator of low transmission of the virus, but said ADHS likely won’t use a specific figure to allow for more flexibility.
Schools will still have to provide 180 days’ worth of instruction for the school year, but students will have the option of attending school in person or remotely. Hoffman said most schools will begin online instruction within the next couple weeks.
The executive order that Ducey issued Thursday for the upcoming school year requires school districts to offer at least some on-site instruction. Hoffman said the intent of that requirement is to ensure that students who really need it have a place to go.
“You do have students who, for them, school is the safest place for them to be. You have an at-risk student population. There are students who need very special services that only their school can provide,” Hoffman said.
Under the plan Ducey announced on Thursday, schools that opt to use online-only education after Aug. 17 won’t lose funding, a provision of his earlier plan that had been a major concern of educators across the state.
Schools that have previously been certified as Arizona Online Instruction programs receive 95% of the funding they would have gotten for a full-time, in-person student. Under the terms of an executive order Ducey issued in June, schools can receive “enrollment stability grants” to help make up for funding lost as a result of the COVID crisis, but only if they’re physically open for at least as many days per week as they were during the 2019-20 school year.
Now, schools can get grants worth 5% of the funding they traditionally receive per student. Those grants will give districts 100% of the per-pupil funding they receive if students attend online, rather than impose a 5% cut, as Ducey’s previous policies would have done. And for those students who attend classes in person, schools will now be eligible to receive 105% of the per-pupil funding.
Hoffman said the additional funding was an acknowledgment that schools will incur extra costs for in-person instruction while battling the coronavirus outbreak. For example, she said, schools will be able to use that money on personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies, and equipment to help enforce physical distancing in classrooms.
The superintendent said she didn’t think the funding bonus would encourage schools to reopen physically in situations where it might not be completely safe to do so.
“In speaking with our school leaders around the state, they have been surveying their teachers, surveying their families, they’re creating systems where their goal is to accommodate both, to be able to do in-person learning and distance learning,” Hoffman said after the press conference. “I think our schools have already been working on these plans and they’re going to make decisions that are best for their school community.”
The announcement on the upcoming school year comes as a number of school districts decided on their own to delay in-person instruction past the Aug. 17 start date. Phoenix Union High School District, for example, has already decided to offer only online instruction until Oct. 1.
In addition to his schools announcement, Ducey also indefinitely extended an earlier executive order he issued in late June closing bars, gyms, movie theaters, water parks and river tubing. Those closures will be reassessed every two weeks..
The agreement between Ducey and Hoffman on the new plan for the start of the 2020-21 school year is the latest chapter in the working relationship the Republican governor and Democratic state superintendent have forged since the COVID-19 crisis hit Arizona in March. Some wondered whether that relationship was fracturing earlier this week when Hoffman issued a unilateral statement calling on Ducey to make the reopening of schools contingent on metrics like COVID-19 testing availability and turnaround time, and decreases in case growth and testing positivity. Hoffman also asked the governor to guarantee that schools would receive full funding for distance learning.
Hoffman told reporters after the press conference that she issued that statement because she’d been receiving phone calls and questions about this week’s press conference and plans for the school year, and she wanted to publicize her top priorities. She said she’s been having daily meetings with the governor’s office, including over the weekend, to work on the plan.
The Democratic caucus in the Arizona House of Representatives praised Hoffman for her work pushing Ducey to abandon his “date-certain opening” for schools and adopting a data-driven alternative, but said the decision on when to reopen should be made at the state level.
“[T]he new requirements need to be enforced statewide, not pushed off to school districts to make vital healthcare decisions,” the House Democrats tweeted after Thursday’s press conference.
Ducey touted signs of improvement in Arizona’s COVID-19 outbreak, which during June was among the worst in the nation, while warning that the crisis is far from over. He noted that new cases are on the decline, as are reports of COVID-like illnesses, and the percentage of positive tests for the virus is going down as well, though he said that number is still too high.
According to Johns Hopkins University, Arizona’s two-week average for positive tests is still nearly 25%, the worst of any state.
“There’s no victory lap today, there’s no celebration. We cannot let up. We need to continue to be vigilant every day in the State of Arizona,” Ducey said, urging Arizonans to stay home when possible, wear a mask while in public and wash their hands frequently.
Overall testing numbers for the state have been low over the past week, though Ducey said demand for tests has been low and that there is plenty of unused capacity at two testing sites in Phoenix established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Christ, however, acknowledged that there is still a problem with turnaround time on COVID-19 tests, with people waiting an average of 5.2 days results, though some labs average as long as 7.5 days. The state currently has a backlog of nearly 62,000 tests that still need to be processed. Ducey said that Sonora Quest pledged to erase that backlog by the end of July.