No Schools Are Ready to Reopen After Arizona Released Reopening Benchmarks

Superintendent Hoffman speaking at press briefing

FILE - In this July 23, 2020, file photo, Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman speaks during a news conference in Phoenix. Arizona's top health official and the state's education chief laid out a series of guidelines Thursday, Aug. 6, that public schools were urged to use when deciding whether coronavirus infection rates are low enough to safely reopen for full in-person learning. (AP Photo/Matt York, Pool, File)

By Jessica Swarner

August 7, 2020

The health department created a new dashboard that will be updated each Thursday to keep track of the criteria.

The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) on Thursday released a list of county-level benchmarks meant to help school districts decide when it’s safe to reopen classrooms for in-person learning. 

To begin reopening with a hybrid model (part-online learning, part in-person), the county a school is in should have: 

  • A two-week decline in weekly average cases OR two weeks below 100 cases per 100,000 population;
  • Two weeks with diagnostic test positivity below 7%;
  • And two weeks with less than 10% of hospital visits due to COVID-like illness.

As of Thursday, some counties had met both the first and third benchmarks, but none had met the second. 

No Schools Are Ready to Reopen After Arizona Released Reopening Benchmarks

To return to full-time in-person learning, the county a school is in should have:

  • Fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 people
  • A test positivity rate below 5%
  • And fewer than 5% of hospital visits are for COVID-like symptoms

The health department created an online dashboard that will be updated each Thursday to keep track of any changes. 

While the data points can help schools make decisions, they are only guidelines. Schools will not be forced to reopen if they are met, nor forced to close if they’re not met.

Gov. Doug Ducey had announced earlier this summer that the earliest day schools could reopen would be Aug. 17. 

RELATED: ‘What Will Happen if My Teacher Dies?’: Kids Ask Ducey Tough Questions on Schools Reopening

But Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman made it clear earlier this week that she didn’t believe any schools would be in a safe position to open by then. 

“While it is clear that Arizona is not currently ready to resume traditional in-person or hybrid learning, we now have clear goals for knowing when it is safer to return to the classroom amid COVID-19,” Hoffman said in a press release Thursday. “I urge all school leaders to use these benchmarks to make safe decisions about learning in this school year.”

ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said she expects it’s going to take at least “several weeks” for any county to meet all three benchmarks to begin hybrid learning.

Training for the Digital Age

While a start date for students to return to classrooms is still up in the air, the state is working on a new program to help teachers get more comfortable in an online environment. 

The governor’s office on Thursday announced a $7.5 million partnership with the Helios Education Foundation and Arizona State University to help train educators to teach online. 

The free training, called the ASU Prep Digital’s Arizona Virtual Teacher Institute, will start Tuesday with a three-day program to help them create an online curriculum, learn how to track student progress, become more familiar with online tools, and more. 

“As schools look to begin the fall semester in a distance learning mode, they face different challenges,” Hoffman said in a press release. “We want to give all schools and teachers access to the tools and training that they need.” 

Remote Learning Here to Stay

Many teachers and parents have said they would like to keep school remote this fall as the country continues to try to curb the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Just last month, Arizona was considered the No. 1 global hot spot for the disease. 

While the number of new daily cases has decreased in recent weeks, the percentage of diagnostic tests coming back positive is still sitting at about 13%, higher than it was in mid-May. 

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In an effort to stay on top of the spread, the state health department is offering free COVID-19 testing at seven sites in the Phoenix area, with four of them operating 24/7. 

The governor has fielded questions about the state’s case numbers and school reopening in his weekly press briefings, but this week is the first time he decided not to hold a briefing in months. 

The governor instead visited the White House to speak with President Donald Trump, who praised Ducey’s response to the pandemic.

Long Way to Normal

Arizona has 1.1 million students attending K-12 public schools, either traditional district schools or charter schools.

Even if schools decide their county meets the thresholds to fully reopen, Christ said she knows some children won’t return right away. 

“We know that some parents are not going to be comfortable sending their kids back until there is a vaccine,” Christ said. 

Another troubling problem for schools is a rising number of resignations or early retirements by teachers, some of whom are concerned about becoming infected if they return to work or about bringing the virus home to a vulnerable family member. Others are quitting to care for their own children who aren’t able to go to school.

“It is concerning for me because we were already experiencing a shortage of teachers,” Hoffman said.

For instance, one-fifth of Arizona classrooms lacked a fully qualified teacher in January, before the pandemic, Hoffman noted.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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