Most Arizona students who are still participating in virtual learning will be able to return to the classroom later this month after Gov. Doug Ducey ordered schools to resume in-person instruction.
Under an executive order Ducey issued on Wednesday, schools must provide in-person instruction by March 15, or after spring break. Schools must still use physical distancing “to the greatest extent possible,” and will be required to provide virtual instruction for students whose parents or guardians wish to continue using that option.
Ducey cited recent guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, which said last month that in-person school attendance is not a “primary driver” of COVID-19 transmission, and that schools can safely provide in-person instruction if they strictly follow distancing and other mitigation strategies.
“Arizona’s students need to be back in the classroom,” Ducey said in a press statement announcing his executive order. “The science is clear: it’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap.”
Ducey noted that he included teachers in the 1B priority group for COVID-19 vaccinations to encourage a return to in-person learning. More than half of Arizona’s schools are now providing in-person instruction, Ducey said, and more schools need to follow their lead.
There are exemptions in Ducey’s mandate. In counties that still meet the CDC’s definition of high community transmission of COVID-19, middle schools and high schools can continue offering online instruction, though that exemption doesn’t extend to elementary schools. Only Coconino, Pinal and Yavapai counties currently have high transmission, which the CDC defines as more than 100 cases per 100,000 people and more than 10% of nucleic acid amplification tests coming back positive over the previous seven days.
Ducey’s order was hailed by Republican lawmakers, many of whom have been vocal in wanting to see schools fully reopen.
“Many students have fallen behind, especially those in low income communities. The Governor’s order will protect students’ needs, while following CDC guidance,” Rep. Michelle Udall, who chairs the House Education Committee, said in the governor’s press release.
Some organizations representing public schools and teachers were dismayed by the order.
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said it will be difficult for some schools to shift back to in-person instruction with just 12 days’ notice.
“That puts superintendents and boards in a terrible spot, because now they’re going to face questions they don’t have the answers to, and they’re trying to figure it out with less than two weeks to do it,” Kotterman said. “All that could’ve been avoided through a more collaborative process. So, that’s frustrating.”
Though many teachers and school employees have received vaccinations, Kotterman said he’s seen no data on how many or what percentage have now been inoculated against COVID-19.
The requirement that schools provide both in-person and virtual instruction may leave many of them without enough staff, given how difficult it is for a teacher to provide online instruction while also teaching students in the classroom, Kotterman said. And though the CDC is insistent that schools should abide by distancing requirements, he said that will be difficult for many schools to do when their entire student bodies return to campus.
State schools superintendent Kathy Hoffman was also critical of the short runway for schools to prepare. She said the Arizona Department of Education supports “layered mitigation strategies to safely initiate or expand in-person learning,” but said the timing of Ducey’s deadline would make things difficult for schools that already planned to resume in-person instruction at different dates.
“As a state, we should be collaborating to provide as much preparation and planning time as possible ahead of significant changes to school operations. To achieve stability for our school communities, it’s necessary to provide them with adequate time to inform and ready their staff, students and families,” Hoffman said in a press statement.
C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Ducey, questioned why schools wouldn’t have planned for the likelihood that they would have to return to in-person instruction. He noted that the governor has been vocal about his desire to see students return to the classroom, even broaching the subject in his State of the State address in January, when he declared that the state would not be “allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure.”
“They haven’t been planning for the inevitability of reopening?” Karamargin said. “This should not come as a surprise.”
The deadline for schools to reopen will come exactly one year after Ducey first ordered them closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. On March 15, 2020, Ducey implemented a two-week shutdown, which was later extended. Schools were permitted to reopen on Aug. 17, and the Arizona Department of Health Services introduced a set of non-binding benchmarks that schools could use to determine when it was safe to reopen. Those benchmarks have since been replaced by the new CDC guidelines.