PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey is defending hard-and-fast limits on when businesses can reopen while saying it’s OK for schools to send children back to class even if local health conditions do not meet the guidelines set by his own state health director.
The governor said that, unlike the restrictions on businesses, he has no interest in making those safety guidelines for schools mandatory.
“We’ve got different variations of spread throughout the state,’’ Ducey said Thursday. He said the state — and most of the counties — are “headed in the right direction.’’
“So what we wanted to do is provide a menu of options and flexibility in the guidelines so there’s safety inside our schools,’’ the governor said. He said the “ultimate and final decisions’’ are left to superintendents and principals.
“And I’m confident they’ll make the decisions,’’ Ducey said.
The guidelines released last week say that schools should consider a three-part test before offering any in-person instruction:
A decline in the number of cases for at least two weeks;
Two weeks in which the percent of tests coming back positive for COVID-19 is less than 7 percent;
Fewer than 10 percent of hospital visits for at least two weeks are for people with COVID-like symptoms.
The benchmarks are set on a county-by-county basis, with the guidelines saying all three conditions should be met.
As of Thursday, 11 counties met two of the three benchmarks, with Gila, Graham, Greenlee and Pima meeting only one.
The health department has set similar benchmarks for reopening of now-shuttered businesses. But only two counties have reached the point at which spread is considered only “moderate’’ and some of these can reopen, albeit on a limited basis.
While business activity is strictly regulated by those benchmarks, that’s not the case for schools.
What’s happened is that officials in several districts have announced they plan to start in-person instruction this coming week. Ducey said he sees nothing wrong with that.
Some of it, he said, comes down to local conditions.
“Part of this is around being able to physically distance, wearing masks,’’ the governor said.
“We have some school districts that are packed with children. We have others where there’s more room and availability.’’
And what of the benchmarks?
“We’re not ignoring the benchmarks,’’ Ducey responded.
“Many of the districts are close on the benchmarks,’’ he said. “And they’re making decisions.’’
That drew questions about why the same options are not open to businesses in counties where the governor said it’s safe enough to send kids to school.
“Because we’ve been in the unhappy but responsible business of dispersing large adult gatherings,’’ Ducey responded.
All that raised questions about whether it is safer to have large gatherings of children rather than large gatherings of adults.
“There’s still a lot that we’re trying to learn about the virus,’’ said state Health Director Cara Christ.
For example, she said, it appears that children do not transmit the virus “as effectively as adults.’’ But is it a risk to send children back into the classroom?
“It’s going to depend on those mitigation measures,’’ Christ said.
“If they can appropriately physically distance, if they make them wear the masks, if they are able to cohort groups, that would be a safe environment for kids to return.’’
That last category involves keeping kids in the same group all day so that if there is an outbreak it spreads only to that group and not throughout the school.
Christ said she believes that the issue of where kids learn — at home or in class — goes beyond the question of safety.
“There’s so many things that happen at school that are important for the appropriate growth and development of children that if we can get them back into the classroom we want to get them back in the classroom,’’ she said.
The question about safety has spilled over into local schools.
In Queen Creek Unified School District, for example, some teachers have resigned since the school board voted 4-1 to reopen earlier this week. Ducey made it clear he’s not siding with them.
“I support the principals, I support the superintendents and I support the parents,’’ he said when asked about the situation. “I feel that they have the best interests of the kids at heart.’’
The governor said teachers also have the interests of children but seemed to separate those willing to return from those who were not.
“There’s a lot of teachers that can’t wait to get to the front of the classroom,’’ he said.
On the subject of businesses, the governor brushed aside a series of lawsuits that have been filed against him accusing him of acting illegally, including keeping operations closed and preventing landlords from evicting tenants who have not been paying their rent.
“My reaction is, get in line, all right?’’ he responded.
“We’re doing everything we can to protect people in this state, to protect the most vulnerable through a public health emergency and an economic disruption. And we’ll continue to do it.’’
The governor appeared to have no clear explanation of why he has allowed pools, water slides and splash parks attached to resorts to reopen while free-standing facilities remain shuttered.
“We’re working with the larger places, commercial places, on guidance and reopening,’’ he said. Ducey said there is “guidance’’ for resort-run pools on how many people can be together.
So why can’t independent splash parks open under the same rules?
“It’s somewhat the same thing that I talked about on some of these other businesses that were operating responsibly but underneath the category it was not,’’ Ducey said. “We’re working with them on reopening.’’