'Children Deserve A Choice': Arizona Districts Set To Offer In-Person Classes, Disregarding Public Health Benchmarks
Monday is the earliest that Arizona schools can begin welcoming students back to classrooms since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Some school districts have decided to do just that before state health officials recommend it's safe.
On Tuesday, parents and students pleaded with Queen Creek Unified School District governing board members to reopen school classrooms.
“I’m thankful for the teachers in this district. I think they are doing their best, but our children deserve a choice," said Amber Curtis, a parent of five. "They deserve to be in class.”
“I can’t handle it. Please let us go back," said Zach Benson, an elementary school student.
Families like theirs want the choice to send students back to school and some governing boards want to decide for themselves too.
This week, J.O. Combs Unified School District in San Tan Valley and the Queen Creek district in the East Valley announced they would start in-person instruction Monday. Pima Unified School District in southeastern Arizona is hoping to do the same pending board approval.
The Littleton Elementary School District in the West Valley plans to offer some in-person instruction to a limited number of students in two weeks. These districts will continue to offer online options for families who want their students to keep learning from home.
The decisions to start in-person learning are responding to a July executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey that empowers school leaders to decide when to start offering in-person classes. The order directed the Arizona Department of Health Services to develop and release public health benchmarks "for the safe return of in-person, teacher-led classroom instruction."
"Local school leaders will make the determination and consider these recommendations," Ducey said at his July 23 press conference.
The health department released those benchmarks last week. They include the number COVID-19 cases per a 100,000 population, the percentage of positive tests, ER visits and hospitalizations. Health officials recommend waiting until the three benchmarks decline for two weeks before schools partially or fully reopen. As of Wednesday, no Arizona counties had met all three metrics, but school leaders can decide to reopen anyway since they’re not mandated to follow the recommendations.
“I think it’s disappointing to see districts and school leaders making decisions that are disregarding these public health metrics when I think they are such a valuable resource," said the state Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. “Maybe I was a bit of an optimist in thinking that districts would adhere to them.”
To Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert, the state’s COVID-19 statistics do not adequately reflect the situation in Graham County and the town of Pima in southeastern Arizona.
“When we are looking at COVID-like illness, our community hospital doesn’t report those numbers to the reporting agency for the region. We’re being given information about hospitals primarily in Tucson and being told to use that to judge whether or not we should reopen schools here in Pima," he said.
The superintendent doesn’t think the metric that looks at the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests is reliable either. With Pima’s number of COVID-19 cases lower than expected, Rickert doesn’t feel a need to keep his schools closed and is asking his governing board to approve at its Thursday board meeting to their schools starting Monday.
The situation is a bit different in Maricopa County where Avondale's Littleton Elementary School District is located. COVID-19 is still widespread, according to the county’s website. So for now, the district will offer some face-to-face instruction time to a limited number of preschool students and students with disabilities, said Superintendent Roger Freeman.
“They are a small group that won’t be interacting with the larger group because the larger group is still doing remote learning so we think it will be pretty safe," he said.
The district has enough employees who are ready, willing and confident to staff these programs which start on Aug. 24, Freeman said. Teachers at other school districts that are welcoming back all students who are interested don't feel the same way.
“A lot of people are very upset," said Jacob Frantz, the president of the Queen Creek Education Association. "A lot of people just saying they felt physically ill for the amount of danger they are putting not only us, but our students and their families and our entire community in.”
As long as state officials make it optional for school leaders to follow recommendations, Chris Kotterman with the Arizona School Boards Association predicts the patchwork of decisions will continue to grow.
“As more districts decide to take this route, the pressures on their neighboring districts are gonna go up exponentially," he said. "That’s almost a guarantee.”
The association told the Governor’s Office and health officials that if they want to avoid chaos, they need to engineer a better framework for school leaders to follow, Kotterman said.
Hoffman said she believes that school leaders who make these decisions to reopen before metrics determine that it's safe will be held accountable by their teachers, staff and the families they serve.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the location of Pima Unified School District.