The state’s criteria are only considered recommendations, leaving open the opportunity for schools to reopen as early as Monday.
Earlier this month, the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) released a list of three COVID-19 benchmarks to help school districts decide when to reopen in-person.
But the criteria are only considered recommendations, leaving open the opportunity for schools to reopen as early as Aug. 17 even if they don’t meet the guidelines. Some school districts are doing just that.
So far, the Queen Creek Unified School District and the J.O. Combs Unified School District have both announced plans to open classrooms Monday.
The Queen Creek district is based in Maricopa County, where, according to the ADHS dashboard, only one benchmark for beginning hybrid learning (part in-person, part online) has been met.
The county has seen a decline in cases for two consecutive weeks, but its percentage of people testing positive is still above 7%, and hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses need another week of decline to meet the guideline.
The J.O Combs district is located in Pinal County, which also only meets the first benchmark but has progress to make on the other two.
The ADHS dashboard does not include data from the two most recent weeks, as the health department factors in labs’ reporting lags. According to the most recent data, the state’s percentage of positive test results was 10% for the week of July 26 and 8% the week of Aug. 2.
So far this week, the percentage is at 6%, but fewer than 7,000 tests have been reported so far. About 52,000 tests have been reported each of the last two weeks.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has insisted schools should refrain from opening until the benchmarks give them the green light.
While she didn’t call out districts by name, she tweeted Wednesday that not following the guidelines is a “disservice to educators.”
When the benchmarks were rolled out, ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said she expected it would take at least “several weeks” for any county to meet all three benchmarks to begin hybrid learning.
Despite these cautions, hundreds of parents and students rallied at the Arizona Capitol on Monday, hoping to pressure schools into providing in-person learning options as soon as possible.
The next day, the Queen Creek district’s governing board voted to reopen schools for the following week.
In a letter to parents, district members explained that because Gov. Doug Ducey’s order that schools must offer in-person learning opportunities for students who need them by Aug. 17, they believed all students should be able to participate.
The letter also stated a majority of the district’s parents had signaled they want some form of in-person learning available. Parents who would rather keep their children at home still have that option.
The letter does not mention the ADHS benchmarks but does say “the Board took into consideration the facts, data, community needs, and mitigation plan and voted to do what they believe is in the best interest of their constituents.”
The district, which has required teachers to be on campus to teach online since Aug. 3, has already reported several cases.
The Combs district governing board voted Monday to allow for an in-person option starting next week, while also allowing parents to choose to continue online classes.
In a letter to parents, Superintendent Dr. Gregory Wyman mentioned the ADHS benchmarks but said the district wants to offer classroom learning for parents who want it.
“I know that our current circumstances are challenging, and that emotions are running high as our families and staff agonize over making the right decisions for our students,” Wyman wrote. “Regardless of where you may stand on these issues, I implore you to show one another kindness and empathy, as we are all working toward the goal of providing the very best education for your child every day.”
School Outbreaks in Other States
Despite the president’s and others’ claims, children are not immune to the virus.
While they are often asymptomatic, they still can transfer it to other people. And some children do develop symptoms, while a small number have even died from it.
In Arizona, more than 23,000 of the state’s COVID-19 cases are those ages 0-19. The state does not break cases down into smaller age brackets.
Across the U.S., cases in children were up 90% over the past four weeks. Last month, 25 children died from the disease.
So far, only two of the country’s 15 major school systems have opted to try to reopen classrooms in the near future, but schools in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and more have opened their doors to students.
Some schools in those states have already had to shut down due to resulting outbreaks.