PHOENIX — The way state health officials see it, it’s now safe for schools in 10 of the state’s 15 counties to start offering in-person instruction.
But the final decision of whether to do that — and exactly how — remains firmly in the hands of local school officials.
The latest report Thursday shows that the affected counties are now meeting a three-part test for school reopenings that the Department of Health Services has determined show that the risk of the spread of COVID-19 is now only “moderate” at worst. That includes fewer than 10% of hospital visits being for COVID-like symptoms, fewer than 7% of tests conducted coming back positive in the past two weeks, and either a two-week decline in the number of cases or a case rate of fewer than 100 for every 100,000 residents.
All 15 counties meet the hospital standard.
But Gila, Graham, Mohave, Santa Cruz and Yuma counties still haven’t reached the benchmark for positive test results. And Gila and Graham counties also fall short on hitting the mark for the number of cases.
Just because counties are now in the moderate category does not mean that schooling will return to the way it was before they were first shuttered in March.
What it does allow is what the state considers “hybrid” instruction. That generally means a combination of online and in-person teaching.
But it remains a local option of how to do it.
Some districts have half their children in class in the morning and the other half in the afternoon to minimize the number of youngsters in any one place and allow for more “social distancing.” Others have chosen to have students attending on different days, or bringing students back a few grades at a time.
In any event, there are other requirements, including masks for students and instructors, enhanced cleaning protocols, better ventilation and closing of communal spaces like lunchrooms.
State schools chief Kathy Hoffman said she is glad that most counties are meeting the requirements for hybrid instruction. But she said there’s still a long way to go before things get back to close to the way they were before March when she and Gov. Doug Ducey shuttered all public schools.
“For schools to safely reopen for full in-person instruction we do want to see two weeks of meeting the 5% threshold for positivity rates,” she said. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction.”
That assumes that things ever will get back to the way they were before.
“I think that, not just in Arizona but across the country, we are experiencing a shift in what our education system will look like going into the future,” Hoffman said, with some families deciding they’re no longer interested in sending their children to school on a full-time basis. She said that, in turn, will have ripple effects on total enrollment and the state funding that goes along with that.
But Hoffman said the pandemic also could create new opportunities to reinvent public education, including the number of instructional hours and how much of that can be conducted online — assuming that all students have access to both computers and high-speed internet.
Opening school doors is not just a matter of meeting the benchmarks. It also requires that teachers are comfortable going back into schools, with issues including whether they believe the plans for everything from cleaning procedures to ventilation are adequate.
“They’re still nervous,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. “They don’t see the situation as safe for them and their students.”
Then there are the views of parents.
On one side there are the same questions about safety. But there also are the countervailing issues of whether they can continue to try to oversee an online education of their children, especially with more and more adults now being called back to work.
Hoffman said that, at least for the time being, there’s still “a lot of fear and concern” among families.
She pointed out that schools were told to open their doors last month for on-site support services.
“They expected hundreds, if not thousands, of kids to show up,” Hoffman said.
“They were shocked at the number of kids that actually arrived,” she continued. “They said it was an indicator that families were not comfortable yet with sending their kids back to the school setting for learning.”
Then there’s the issue of notification.
On one hand, Thomas said, it might make no sense to tell everyone who works or attends a school if there is a single outbreak that might be in an entirely different wing of the building.
“But you all come through the same set of doors, you use the same restrooms, you walk the same hallways, you use the same computer lab, you ride similar buses,” he said. And Thomas said there is no clear direction on whether districts will notify all of the staff and all of the parents and all of the students.”
Thomas conceded that sending out notice every time a staffer or student tests positive could provoke more fear than is necessary. But he said it’s a question of rights.
“As a parent, I do think I need to have the last word about the safety of my child,” Thomas said.
“There’s the potential to cause fear,” she said. “But you’re providing families with information to make informed decisions,” she said.
And there may be another reason for transparency.
Thomas said that, what with social media and the rumor mill, word will get out that something is amiss. Being upfront, he said, builds trust.
“Because if you don’t do that, you look like you’re hiding something,” Thomas said.