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Why Superintendent Kathy Hoffman Decided To Close Arizona Schools

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman has been offering guidance to schools in recent days as the state works to mitigate the spread of the virus. On Sunday, she joined Governor Doug Doocy to announce that all schools would be closed until at least March 27. And now she's with us to tell us more about the current state of the response in classrooms. Superintendent, good morning.

KATHY HOFFMAN: Good morning.

GOLDSTEIN: So give us the process that you and others, including the governor, went through to decide to close schools officially.

HOFFMAN: Well, as you can imagine, this was a very difficult decision that weighed very heavily on us. So at first, we were listening very carefully to the recommendations from Dr. (Cara) Christ from the Arizona Department of Health Services. And so, as you know, the initial recommendation was to do everything we could to keep schools open, because we know that our students rely on our schools for more than just academics. And my my my big question was, where will the children go or where are we going to be providing child care? How will we make sure that our our children are looked after if we close the schools? But then we saw, district by district, that many of them were closing on their own. And part of that actually was because of staffing issues — that many teachers were calling in, and we don't have enough substitute teachers to cover all of the teachers that were planning on not working at school. And then, of course, we were all also hearing from parents that they were concerned about sending their children to school. So when we took a step back and looked statewide and and really listened to our educators and our families, it was clear that the decision needed to be made to close schools statewide.

GOLDSTEIN: If we take safety into account, did one seem safer to you than the other, either having kids in school or not in school?

HOFFMAN: I think it's hard to know and hard to predict. And I keep saying we're in unprecedented times. And I I just can't predict what this is going to look like for Arizona. And I know we're looking around the world at other countries and other states. And it's just really hard to predict what this will look like for Arizona.

MARK BRODIE: ... What is your department doing now in terms of trying to get answers to some of the questions that have been raised by this closure, including things like maybe some relief from the mandatory number of days schools have to be in, things like testing — those kinds of questions?

HOFFMAN: Yeah. So we've been working on those issues over the past couple of weeks, and we're trying to address them as in terms of what's the most urgent needs for schools. So for example, one of the most urgent needs is making sure that we are providing school meals for any child in Arizona that needs a meal. And so we've been working around the clock, working with our nutrition directors and schools. If anyone wants to see where meals are available, we have that on our website at azed.gov. We we have guidance, and we have all the school districts listed that have pickup locations for meals. In terms of testing, we've been working with our vendors to make sure that we have flexibility and we're working with the federal government to see if an additional waiver might be needed for statewide testing. We're still just in conversation around that. ... Also, one of the top issues for districts is what are educators doing that during this time and how can we ensure that their pay is not disrupted?

GOLDSTEIN: And coming back to students, what is the potential for distance learning? Considering there are a number of students who are low income, may not have home Internet, may not have home computers, that kind of thing.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. We acknowledge that there are some families that can readily access online resources, and we're working with districts to make sure that they have access to those online resources for those that can have that available to them. And there's many different organizations that are now offering those resources for free that typically might not. So it's good to see those types of options. But for the families that don't have those options, we are encouraging that districts and educators try to think creatively, to think about are there ways to provide packets of learning or alternate ways of learning? But we also recognize that this will not be a possibility for every family or for every child. And and thinking even also about students with disabilities who cannot access learning, some who may not be able to access learning through online means. So we are concerned about that. But at the end of the day, our recommendations to districts as to be as flexible as possible and to be thinking creatively, to be checking in with families and students, to really be thinking about how can we all work together to support the needs of our students during this difficult time.

BRODIE: Lastly, Superintendent Hoffman, what will you need to see before you're ready to say that schools should reopen?

HOFFMAN: That's something that we're constantly evaluating, and that's going to be an issue that I'll be collaborating with the governor as well as Dr. Christ on making that determination. At this time, it's too soon to tell. And I think that's why we decided to have the two-week closure — is to give us some time to see how things are changing between now and then. And I mean, at the end of the day, we want to make sure that our schools are safe for everyone. And we're putting the well-being of our children and our educators above all else.

GOLDSTEIN: And that is Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction, Kathy Hofman. Superintendent, thank you.

HOFFMAN: Thank you so much.

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Steve Goldstein was a host at KJZZ from 1997 to 2022.