Ducey defends unannounced change to school reopening guidelines




Gov. Doug Ducey holds a COVID-19 briefing at St. Mary's Food Bank. Photo by Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic/USA Today Network | Pool photo

Gov. Doug Ducey defended a recent change to state health guidelines that loosened the COVID-19 benchmarks K-12 schools use to determine when they can safely resume in-person or hybrid instruction, saying the move was made at the request of education officials, though he wouldn’t say exactly who.

As first reported by ABC15, the Arizona Department of Health Services quietly changed the recommendations for when schools should switch back to all virtual learning.

In August, ADHS established three criteria to determine when schools should use virtual, in-person or hybrid instruction: cases per 100,000 people, the percent of COVID tests that are positive and the percentage of hospital visits that are for COVID-like illnesses. The recommendations for what kind of instruction schools should provide are based on whether the metrics in their counties indicate minimal, moderate or substantial transmission of the virus. 

Under the original benchmarks, ADHS recommended that schools switch from hybrid learning — a combination of in-person and online instruction — to exclusively virtual learning if any one of the three metrics went from moderate to substantial. Now, the agency recommends that schools only make the switch if all three metrics show substantial spread of COVID in their counties.

The recommendations are non-binding.

At a press conference on Thursday, Ducey and Arizona Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ defended the decision.

“These are guidelines, and there’s always been flexibility for our parents, for our students and for our teachers. And these guidelines were adjusted at the request of public education leaders, in coordination with public health officials,” Ducey said.

The governor said he wants to protect teachers and students who don’t feel safe returning to the classroom. But where it’s safe to do so, he wants schools to reopen.

Christ said the issue came up during weekly meetings that ADHS holds with local health officials and the Arizona Department of Education.

“During these conversations, our partners expressed concerns about the instability that would occur if the recommendations to move back to virtual learning were based in a change on a single benchmark, especially in smaller, rural counties,” Christ said on Thursday. “This variability could cause weekly shifts in educational delivery model recommendations, which would result in uncertainty for families and schools as they plan for the upcoming weeks.”

But though reporters pressed him multiple times, Ducey wouldn’t say which education officials requested the change. And though neither the governor’s office nor ADHS announced the change, leaving the public and education officials to learn about it through media coverage, Ducey said the process had been transparent.

“This was done, like I said, with education leaders, the superintendent of public instruction and public health officials,” he said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman wrote on Twitter that the request didn’t come from her.

“The Arizona Department of Education did not request or recommend any changes to the @AZDHS school benchmarks,” Hoffman tweeted

The change comes as COVID numbers Arizona climb amid a nationwide resurgence of the novel coronavirus. 

“We understand that this has been a difficult year and many have grown tired of the mitigation strategies. But now is not the time to let up,” Christ said.

Ducey said Arizona needs to “be vigilant and keep our guard up.” But he also emphasized that Arizona, which had one of the country’s worst COVID outbreaks over the summer, is in better shape than many other states.

“We’ve been through this before,” he said. “We’ve learned what works to combat this virus. We’ve had time to prepare.”