Arizona Won't Require Schools To Open As Planned In 3 Weeks

Published: Thursday, July 23, 2020 - 5:50pm
Updated: Friday, July 24, 2020 - 1:58pm

Arizona won't require public schools to reopen for in-person learning as expected in mid-August as the coronavirus pandemic continues at a high level in the state.

The Republican governor had set Aug. 17 as the "aspirational" date for schools to reopen in full, but the state's two-month surge of virus cases made that impossible. Schools will be required to provide instruction for the full 180 required school days, starting with remote online classes, and also ensure that at-risk students who need in-person instruction have that option.

The guidelines will be released by Aug. 7 and contain specific metrics many school officials had sought to make decisions on the safety of opening schools. The new plan covers 1.1 million public school students in district and charter schools statewide. It doesn't cover private or parochial schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, joined Ducey at Thursday's weekly virus briefing and said the goal is to provide “clarity and guidance” around the coming school year.

“Teaching and learning will happen no matter what the next school year will look like in your community,” she promised. She noted that some districts had already delayed in-person instruction to October.

While schools may not be reopened by Aug. 17, they will be expected to provide free on-site learning opportunities and support services for students who need a place to go for internet access or other personal needs. This includes student supervision, strategic support, or teacher-led/paraprofessional support for students participating in distance learning.

These services do not need to be provided at each school. Districts and charter schools can partner with community organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs to provide this service.

Some exceptions to the on-site learning expectations will be made “if both the local county health department and ADHS determine the entire school district or charter school must close due to an outbreak of the virus or a tribal sovereign nation issues a ‘stay at home’ order,” explained the Arizona Department of Education in a Q&A document on the new executive order.

The order also addresses face masks in schools. It directs school leaders to develop face covering policies to protect their students and staff. It makes exceptions for children under 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance. Masks may not be required when students can social distance including playground settings and breaks in safe environments.

The governor also announced an additional $370 million for schools from his discretionary pot of federal coronavirus funding. The money will help schools with extra expenses for online classes and for returning to schools, and provided through grants if schools give options to students who need to be on campus.

The grants are designed to make up for a 5% funding cut schools would take in they went online, and boost it by 5% if they hold in-person classes.

Ducey also Thursday extended indefinitely the order he issued late last month closing bars, nightclubs and gyms. Although the state is finally seeing early signs that cases are declining, those closures are having an impact and won't be reversed, the governor said.

“There’s no victory lap today, there’s no celebration,” Ducey said. “We cannot let up – we need to be vigilant every day in the state of Arizona.”

For Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas, this seems like a positive start.

“We will know August 7th what the executive order says, and we’ll have the Arizona Department of Health Services come up with those metrics," Thomas said. "It should be based in science, it should be a target that we can understand, that is about the virus and its impact upon how healthy Arizona is.”

But Thomas says it’s not enough — he still wants to see concrete plans from the governor, and guaranteed funding for school districts that choose not to resume in-person classes right away.

Ducey allowed local governments in June to impose requirements for face masks in public spaces, and 90% of the state's population is now covered by those orders. Ducey pointed to the closure and mask orders as leading to a drop in new cases in the past two weeks for the first time in months.

The decisions came as the state's death toll topped 3,000 from the coronavirus. The state Health Services Department reported 89 new deaths Thursday, bringing the statewide total since the outbreak began to 3,063. More than 1,000 of those deaths have been reported in the past 15 days.

The state now has 152,944 confirmed virus cases, with an additional 2,335 reported Thursday. The number of actual infections in Arizona and elsewhere is thought to be much higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Arizona schools were closed to in-person learning on March 15, and students shifted to online instruction,. Ducey then closed most of the state in late March and reopened the state in mid-May.

He ordered bars and gyms to close again on June 29 for at least a month as a surge in cases erupted in the weeks after he allowed a six-week stay-home order to expire in mid-May. The rise in cases made Arizona into a national hot spot and forced the governor to rethink his reopening orders.

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