BENSON — The Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) and Arizona Department of Education (ADE) have partnered in an effort to provide schools across the state guidance for the safe reopening of schools for in-person learning, with the health of students, teachers and staff as a top priority.

In a newly released list of benchmarks for the safe return of in-person instruction, ADHS recommends schools to consider county-specific benchmarks with recent information about community transmission rates.

ADHS recommends that three benchmarks fall into the moderate or minimal transmission ranges before schools in a specific county consider the hybrid approach of virtual and in-person learning. When one or more benchmark categories fall in the substantial transmission range, ADHS recommends that schools work with local health departments and start preparing for virtual learning.

School district superintendents Mike Sherman, Kyle Hart and Micah Mortensen have responded to the following three questions regarding the benchmarks for reopening schools, based on the state’s recommendations.

Herald/Review: How helpful are these benchmarks when it comes to making decisions about how to approach reopening schools to in-person learning?

Mike Sherman, Pomerene District SuperintendentThis is a move in the right direction, with more of a local decision based on the numbers in that area. I would like to see it even more localized. The demographics of communities like Benson, St. David and Pomerene look a lot different than say Douglas or Sierra Vista. However, this is much better than a statewide decision.

The numbers in Cochise County are hopeful and I appreciate the benchmarks that have been given. With these benchmarks, districts can watch the numbers and project when a safe opening is near. Right now, we have met the requirements for BM’s 1 and 3. We need our positive cases to stay below 7% for two consecutive weeks and then we may open in-person school.

Kyle Hart, St. David District SuperintendentThese benchmarks were a good starting point. However, it would be much more helpful if the data could be broken down by zip codes, and not just by county. A small town such as St. David is far different from other cities/towns in our county. It would be a much more accurate and valid piece of data to narrow this down to zip codes.

Micah Mortensen, Benson Unified School District SuperintendentThe Benson Unified School District Governing Board voted to not open campuses on August 17th because, as of last week, the county had not met benchmark number two. Since we are monitoring the data and following the state’s guidelines, the district will resume in-person learning once all three benchmarks have been met.

I know our students and teachers are eager to start in-person learning, but COVID concerns are preventing us from opening our schools. Students will be required to continue using the remote learning model for now. The state’s benchmark recommendations for counties are at least a starting point for schools as they attempt to resume the school year.

H/R: Given the current situation, what is your school district’s opinion of the hybrid in-person teaching model? Do you feel some families will continue with remote learning only, even if the county meets the required benchmarks for the hybrid model?

Sherman: I believe most Pomerene School families are ready for in-person school to begin, believing the consequences for schools being closed to in-person attendance may be far greater than the risks associated with COVID-19. Either way, Pomerene School respects each family’s decision by offering choice. The option to stay in a distance learning model remains for Pomerene families who don’t feel they are ready to return, when that day arrives.

Hart: If we go back to in-person learning, we may have a few families that choose to stick with the distance learning platform. However, the vast majority of our families would send their kids to school for in-person instruction.

Mortensen: Most BUSD families look forward to in-person learning, but families who do not feel safe about returning to in-person learning, will have the option to continue with at-home learning. The BUSD board approved an A/B schedule upon the opening of in-person learning, which allows for half of our students to attend classes on campus, while the other half are attending classes from home. The school district has drafted an A/B schedule, which we will be using once our campuses are able to start in-person learning.

H/R: What kinds of challenges do you anticipate for teachers, parents and students in the upcoming school year because of these changes?

Sherman: With class averages of 12, we believe Pomerene can offer a substantially safer environment than larger schools. For a larger school, reducing the numbers in the classroom requires things like the A — B model where kids only come to school a couple of days a week.

We are hopeful, with our small class sizes and by operating in cohorts, that we will effectively minimize the spread of COVID-19. Our greatest challenges are in a couple of grades closer to 20 students. Here we are looking at an AM — PM schedule that would allow students to be in classrooms 5 days a week.

Pomerene is seeing an increase in enrollment that presents challenges, as well. Under normal circumstances this would be fantastic, but not so great when larger numbers equate to higher risks. We are likely to soon stop accepting out of district students in most areas. However, there is plenty of room in grades 3 and 5, two classes with outstanding veteran teachers who combine for nearly 50 years of experience.

Hart: In my opinion, in-person learning is much more effective than any type of distance learning. Our teachers are doing an excellent job adapting to having to use this virtual teaching. However, I anticipate there being challenges and potential learning gaps with distance learning.

There will always be a range of strengths and weaknesses in our classrooms. I am just concerned that those ranges may widen if we have to continue to use distance learning as our only mode of teaching.

Mortensen: We recognize this situation continues to be very challenging for students, parents, and teachers. As educators, we want nothing more than to have our schools filled with students. While the start of our new school year is both challenging and frustrating, all we can do is continue our long-standing tradition of providing students with the best possible education in an uncharted, ever-changing environment.

As we move forward, our teachers are facing these challenges head-on and are committed to delivering quality education to the children of Benson Unified School District.