Photo by Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press Kristina Washington, special education staff member at Desert Heights Preparatory Academy, exits a classroom in Phoenix, returning to her classroom for only the second time since the coronavirus outbreak closed schools. Arizona educators are planning how public schools will reopen in the coming school year amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic, and some districts already have decided that changes will include limiting what days students will be at school.
Photo by Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

Schools are scheduled to begin online learning in a few weeks, but educators say they need more time to prepare.

When Gov. Doug Ducey announced school reopenings would be pushed back to Aug. 17 because of concerns over COVID-19 infections, it raised as many questions as it answered for parents and school administrators.

While they now have a start date, school leaders are faced with the task of reopening in a state where many classrooms are already overcrowded. A chronic teacher shortage also continues––making social distancing and following safety guidelines all but impossible.

“Unless some miraculous thing happens … all of the sudden everything stops and everyone pays attention and everybody does what they need to do, I don’t see it happening,” said Sergio Chavez, president of the Arizona Parent Teacher Association.


Behind schedule

The new date pushes back the reopening of many Arizona schools by weeks from the late-July or early-August dates some had scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year. While in-person classes will be delayed, schools will be allowed to start distance-learning earlier if they wish.

“It’s good to have some consistency there” of a firm start date, said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona School Boards Association. “The implementation of a mandatory wait to resume in-person is probably not the worst thing of all.”

But Kotterman agreed with Chavez that many hurdles remain before schools can be reopened. Chavez said there is no “magic wand” that can solve those issues, but until Arizona gets a handle on the rising infection rate, Aug. 17 is too soon for reopening schools.

“The responsible thing to do is to say we have to wait and see because we don’t know,” Kotterman said. “But no one likes uncertainty.”


Additional CARES Funding

The order to delay the start of school came days after Ducey announced that the state would direct $270 million of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security––or CARES Act––funding to help schools in the pandemic. The plan includes $200 million for remote learning, $40 million for broadband, $20 million to bring in extra help for high-needs schools. It would also hold schools harmless for enrollment declines.

Chavez said that, unless there is a change in current conditions, he does not plan to send his 15-year-old daughter back to school Aug. 17.

“I understand that kids need to be socialized, kids need to be talking to kids, but at the same time, kids need to be safe,” Chavez said.

Kim Graham, executive director for the Arizona Education Foundation, said that teachers need to be part of any discussion on reopening schools and keeping them healthy. But the focus should be on getting kids back to school, she said.

“Teachers miss their students and the students miss their teachers,” Graham said. “Everyone, I think, wants to be back in school, but only when it’s safe to go back.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,520 new cases of the coronavirus Wednesday, and 36 deaths. There have been a total of 108,614 known cases of COVID-19 in Arizona.