Schools in 10 counties meet requirements for hybrid or in-person instruction

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Maricopa and Pima counties are among eight counties that now meet the state’s recommended COVID-19 benchmarks for K-12 schools to begin hybrid instruction that combines in-person and remote learning, while two other counties are clear to resume in-person instruction on campus.

As of Thursday morning, when the Arizona Department of Health Services updated the weekly numbers for three criteria that the state uses to determine when it’s safe for K-12 students to return to school, Apache, Cochise, Coconino, Maricopa, Navajo, Pima, Pinal and Yavapai counties meet the benchmarks for hybrid instruction.

Under a hybrid model, schools would provide some in-person instruction and some distance learning. 

Greenlee and La Paz counties meet the criteria to resume full in-person instruction. Gila, Graham, Mohave, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties still don’t meet the criteria for hybrid or in-person instruction.

The benchmarks are only recommendations from the state and are not binding. Individual school districts and charter schools are free to resume hybrid or in-person instruction whenever they please, though they must abide by masking requirements to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and must post COVID mitigation plans on their website.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman urged schools that reopen to follow social distancing guidelines and enforce mask usage, and to provide options for students, teachers and staff who aren’t comfortable returning to campus yet.

“As we saw at the end of spring and throughout the summer, COVID19 can spread very quickly when we fail to adhere to essential mitigation strategies like wearing masks and practicing social distancing,” Hoffman said on Twitter and in a statement from the Arizona Department of Education.

Schools are required to report any COVID outbreaks to students, their parents, staff and their county health department. Aggregate data about COVID transmission at schools will be available on the ADHS website. However, school districts are not required to inform the general public which schools are experiencing outbreaks, which ADHS said is to maintain confidentiality and follow state law.

ADHS uses three benchmarks to determine when it’s safe for schools in a county to resume hybrid or in-person instruction: COVID cases per 100,000 people, percentage of positive COVID tests, and percentage of total hospital visits that are for COVID-like illnesses. 

The state recommends that schools don’t begin hybrid instruction until they have two consecutive weeks of fewer than 100 cases per 100,000 people, testing positivity under 7% and less than 10% of hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses. In order to resume full in-person instruction, ADHS recommends fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 people, and less than 5% testing positivity and hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses.

Counties that don’t meet the benchmarks for cases per 100,000 people can qualify for schools to reopen if they have two consecutive weeks of declining COVID case numbers.

Three counties also met the criteria this week for partial reopening of bars, gyms, movie theaters and water parks, which Gov. Doug Ducey had previously shuttered by executive order amid the state’s rising COVID numbers in June and July. Cochise, Mohave and Pinal counties now have moderate community spread of the coronavirus, which allows limited reopenings of those businesses.

Those counties join Apache, Coconino, La Paz, Maricopa, Navajo, Pima and Yavapai counties, which hit the benchmarks for moderate spread and partial business reopenings last week. No new counties met the criteria for minimal community spread this week, leaving Greenlee as the only county that hit those benchmarks.

Gila, Graham and Yuma counties still have substantial community spread of COVID, meaning those businesses must remain closed.