The Arizona Department of Health Services released its eagerly anticipated criteria for when schools can safely reopen for in-person learning amid the continuing COVID-19 crisis, though the benchmarks won’t be mandatory and it will be up to school districts to decide whether it’s safe to bring students back to campus.
Under the criteria released on Thursday, ADHS recommends that school districts use three specific benchmarks to determine when and to what extent they open: COVID cases per 100,000 people, the percent of all tests for the virus that are positive in a week and the percentage of all hospital visits that are for COVID-like illnesses.
Anything over 100 cases per 100,000 people in a county — the recommendations are based on county rather than statewide circumstances — is considered “substantial” community spread, as is greater than 10% of all tests coming back positive and more than 10% of hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses. Moderate community spread is defined as between 10-100 cases per 100,000 people, 5-10% positive tests and 5-10% of COVID-like hospital visits, while minimal community spread is anything lower.
Districts will also have the option of using a different benchmark than cases-per-100,000 to move into the moderate zone. Spread of the virus can be considered moderate if the county has a decline in coronavirus cases for two consecutive weeks.
ADHS uses a color-coded system, with red representing substantial spread, yellow for moderate spread and green for minimal spread.
The state recommends that school districts only teach their students remotely if any of those three criteria are in the red. If there are any yellow, or moderate, benchmarks, ADHS recommends that they use a hybrid system that mixes in-person instruction and online learning. And the state is urging schools to only switch to full in-person instruction if all three are in the green or minimal zone.
ADHS unveiled a new education COVID-19 data dashboard on Thursday showing all three metrics for each county, as well as for the state as a whole. The site will be updated once per week. Due to reporting lags and an incubation period of up to two weeks for the virus, the most recent data that will be available at any given time is from two weeks prior. The initial data made available Thursday is from the weeks of July 12 and July 19.
ADHS Director Cara Christ said she doesn’t expect any counties to meet the benchmarks for reopening by Aug. 17, when schools were initially permitted to resume in-person instruction.
“It’s likely going to be several weeks before we have a county that will be fully in the yellow and green. We do have some counties that are close, but we don’t have any county that’s meeting those benchmarks right now and it will probably take a couple of weeks,” Christ told reporters during a briefing on Thursday.
Christ and state schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said the benchmarks also account for unique circumstances that may arise on a county-by-county basis that would lead schools to open in spite of not meeting certain criteria. They said districts should consult with their county health departments to determine when it’s safe for students to return for in-person instruction.
However, the benchmarks aren’t mandates, and the decision on whether to switch from remote learning to hybrid or in-person instruction will be left solely to the discretion of school district governing boards. ADHS and the Arizona Department of Education will have no way to enforce those recommendations if districts reopen in defiance of the recommendations, or remain open if the numbers take a turn for the worse.
Hoffman said districts should abide by the recommendations, but that there are good reasons why the state didn’t make them mandatory.
“I think one of the benefits to them having a little bit of flexibility is the data can inform the decisions rather than it being entirely black and white,” she said. “We should be looking at the context. We should be looking at … is there a spike because it’s isolated in a skilled nursing facility? Or is it something that’s really going to impact the school community? And that’s where I think the flexibility really makes sense.”
Hoffman said it’s too early to tell whether any districts will ignore the criteria. She noted that Gov. Doug Ducey did impose a statewide mandate on when masks must be worn in schools.
And the superintendent said the state can evaluate in the future whether the system is working.
“We can see if there’s a need for a state mandate. But I do think our school boards will be held accountable by their local communities,” Hoffman said.
Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for the public school advocacy group Save Our Schools Arizona, liked where ADHS set the new benchmarks. But she was skeptical of the decision to not impose a statewide mandate, rather than issuing non-binding recommendations. She said district governing boards are likely to face pressure to reopen, regardless of whether they meet the benchmarks.
“That refusal to do a statewide mandate is what leads to fears that this could all go wrong,” she said.
Penich-Thacker also questioned whether schools would have the personal protective equipment and other gear they’ll need to ensure student and faculty safety once in-person learning resumes, and whether they’ll have the funding they need to comply with requirements that Ducey has imposed.
“The benchmarks are one thing, whether schools can afford to go back to normal and stay healthy is another,” she said.
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, also questioned the “extreme local control approach” that the Ducey administration is using, and would have liked to see a more strictly enforced statewide policy.
Still, he said the benchmarks are a large step in the right direction, especially when compared to tying the reopening of schools to a calendar date.
“The closer we are to a data-driven approach, the better off we are,” he said. “It does get us away from this date-based approach.”
Kotterman also said the data that school districts must use to determine whether they meet the benchmarks won’t be helpful if Arizona’s COVID testing isn’t adequate. And since the outbreak began, testing has been a serious problem in Arizona. According to public health experts, a lack of adequate testing drives up the percentage that are positive as only the sickest people seek tests. The state became infamous for hours-long lines as testing sites on weekends.
Christ and Ducey say testing has become more available, but that people aren’t taking advantage of it, leaving more capacity than demand.
Once schools reopen for in-person learning, they will have to abide by health and safety requirements that Ducey enacted by executive order in July. Adults on K-12 campuses will have to wear face masks at all times, while students will have to wear masks as well, but with a number of exceptions, such as when social distancing is possible, on a playground, or during specified breaks during which they can go without masks.
Once schools reopen, they’ll be required to report all COVID outbreaks, defined as two or more confirmed cases among students or staff in a 14-day period, to their local health departments. Schools should have a low threshold for sending sick students home, ADHS said in its recommendations, and any students suspected of contracting the novel coronavirus, as well as any members of their household, should stay home for two weeks.
Kotterman said ensuring schools remain safe after opening will “require a much larger partnership with public health officials than we’ve ever had before.” And he urged state leaders to turn their focus now to how to make sure schools have the resources needed to properly contain outbreaks and respond to cases as they occur.
“Otherwise, we’re going to end up back where we don’t want to be,” he said.