PHOENIX — A whole set of factors may make Arizona one of the most dangerous places in the country for children to go back to school, according to a new report.
The financial advice site WalletHub says its analysis of illnesses, spending and other classroom issues finds some things that Arizona appears to be doing well. That includes having comprehensive guidance for school reopening and even the fact that, in comparison to other states, relatively few youngsters take a school bus.
And the report notes that Arizona currently has a far below average likelihood of COVID-19 infections among all ages.
But against that, WalletHub says the state’s rate of 1,225 coronavirus cases per 100,000 children as of Aug. 27 — the date used in the report — is the fourth highest rate in the country. And the death rate among children also is in the top 20%.
Patrick Ptak, press aide to Gov. Doug Ducey, said that’s not a fair comparison.
Arizona considers anyone younger than 20 to be a child. And even Diana Polk, spokeswoman for WalletHub, acknowledged that her data includes some states where reports on children take in only those through age 14.
That, however, still leaves the fact that these rankings are based on ratios per 100,000 residents in the same age category.
Ptak, however, dismissed the report entirely as lacking scientific and public health merit.
“The fact is, Arizona schools are handling the pandemic as well or better than any other state,” he said, citing increased COVID-19 testing and recent numbers which put the rate of people of all ages testing positive below 5%.
But state schools chief Kathy Hoffman is not ready to say that everything is fine.
“We want our lives to go back to normal,” she said. “But we are still in a pandemic and we need to take this really seriously because our behaviors today can really have a strong impact of those around us and those we care about.”
She has her own theories about the numbers and the rankings. One, she suggested, could be that Arizona’s high illness and death rate is what happened in May and June — after Ducey lifted restrictions and the illnesses spiked — and less reflective of current conditions.
For the time being, Hoffman said she is relying more on the “metrics” developed by the state Department of Health Services which provide a much more current picture of risks. And those numbers, she noted, say it is now OK for schools in 14 of the state’s 15 counties to begin “hybrid” instruction, a combination of in-person and online learning.
Only Graham County is listed as needing to keep teaching at the virtual level.
Hoffman said that there are other things going on in Arizona which could mitigate the risk of sending kids back to school. She said the state is requiring anyone age 5 and older to be wearing a mask and mandating “social distancing” of desks, all things that should help reduce the risk of spread of the disease.
But the WalletHub rankings are about more than infection rates, whether current or historic.
One is that Arizona has fewer nurses per student than most other states.
“To me this points to the lack of sustained investment in our schools,” Hoffman said, citing similar shortages in counselors and social workers.
There’s also the fact that, as of last year, Arizona as of 2019 had the highest number of students for each available teacher. Class size also was near the top of the chart.
That has been a perennial problem. But the state schools chief said that, in an ironic and unexpected way, that appears to be taking care of itself, at least for the time being.
“A pretty high number of parents are choosing to keep their kids at home for online distance learning,” she said. “So there’s already a reduced number of children because of parents’ family choices to continue with distance learning.”
Along the same lines, Ptak said Arizona has something else going for it as parents make decisions about what to do with their children as the pandemic continues: school choice. He said that includes not just traditional public schools but other alternatives, including charter schools, which may be offering entirely online courses if that’s what families want.
Not everything in the WalletHub analysis of the risks of sending kids back to school safely is related directly to infection rates or even the education system and how it is funded.
For example the analysis says that one child out of every five does not have a room at home of his or her own, increasing the risk of spread to siblings. WalletHub said no state did worse.
And, at the other end of the age spectrum, nearly 6.2% of seniors — those most at risk — share a home with school-age children.