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Arizona Sets Coronavirus Spread Guidelines For School Reopenings

Arizona health officials laid out a three-part test Thursday for when they say it is safe for schools to reopen.

But it’s unclear whether any of the more than 200 traditional school districts and charter schools will actually follow it.

The guidelines say it's safe to partially reopen classrooms to students only when fewer than 10 percent of area residents tested for COVID-19 test positive for the virus; the number of people showing up at local hospitals with COVID-like symptoms is less than 10 percent of all visits; and when the rate of infection drops below 100 cases for every 100,000 residents or cases decline for two consecutive weeks.

Schools are encouraged to use data specific to their county to determine if they meet all the criteria.

No county in Arizona does yet.

"We think it's going to be several weeks before any county meets those benchmarks,'' said state Health Director Cara Christ. "But we do see it trending down within the next month.''

Nothing in the standards is mandatory. And local school officials are free to reopen even while infection rates are high, or remain closed even past the point when the risk is minimal.

Several districts have already announced they don't intend to have in-person classes until the middle of October.

"There are local circumstances that schools may choose to either open earlier or stay closed longer,'' Christ said. "It really is left up to that local education agency in consultation with their local public health.''

But Kathy Hoffman, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, is discouraging school officials from disregarding the guidelines.

"Schools should adhere to these benchmarks,'' she said. "And school boards should be held accountable by their community members to follow the public health recommendations.''

The new state standards are divided into three categories.

First — and most severe — are conditions that the health department say creates conditions for "substantial community spread.'' If a county fails to meet any one of the criteria in that three-part test, schools in that county are advised to teach students remotely.

Counties that pass the test are categorized as experiencing “moderate” community spread of the virus, meaning lower rates of infection and fewer positive tests. In those cases, the standards say that schools can reopen in limited fashion for "hybrid'' education.

That could involve students in school part of the day and online learning the rest of the day, or even having students attend on alternate days.

But there still are restrictions, and not just the physical distancing that the health department wants — six feet between desks. The guidelines also allow for screening individual students for symptoms, closing communal spaces like cafeterias, and mandatory face coverings.

It is only when the infection rate drops below 10 cases per 100,000 residents, fewer than 5% of tests come back positive, and fewer than 5% of hospital visits are for COVID-like symptoms that it is considered safe to go back to traditional instruction.

Even then, health department protocols call for enhanced cleaning, working with students on hand hygiene and "proper respiratory etiquette,'' monitoring absenteeism and proper ventilation of classrooms and school buses.

Adhering to the guidelines means schools won’t be able to reopen by Aug. 17, the “aspirational” date set by Gov. Doug Ducey for schools to resume in-person learning.

But Ducey’s orders still require schools to reopen for students who have nowhere else to go, despite guidelines encouraging school officials and parents to keep kids at home. Hoffman said that order is designed as a “safety net” for students with special needs. And some districts are also prepping space for children of “essential workers.”

Hoffman conceded, however, that under federal law schools are not allowed to turn away any child that shows up at their door.

But that doesn’t mean schools are required to provide those children a traditional learning environment.

Hoffman said some school districts are partnering with local YMCA’s and Boys and Girls Clubs to provide supervised virtual learning environments.

“It will not be babysitting,” Hoffman said.

Lupita Hightower, the superintendent of the Tolleson Elementary School District in the West Valley, said they were a critical component that’s been missing as her district has debated when it should start in-person learning.

“They’re very helpful,” she said. “They are going to be data-driven for boards and superintendents to be able to make decisions. So it was a long time coming, but I’m glad we have them now.” 

The Tolleson community is considered a COVID-19 hotspot in Maricopa County, she said. While the state’s benchmarks are a good starting point, she’s also waiting for the data that Maricopa County health officials will release because it will include breakdowns by city and zip code. 

While the benchmarks are helpful, one concern that remains is that they are only recommendations, said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. 

“No one is mandating certain benchmarks be met before we reopen schools and I think educators see more safety if we have hard numbers we have to meet,” he said. 

If state leaders are serious about making schools safe, Thomas said they need to provide districts with the flexibility and funding that they need.

To explain more about the metrics and how schools will make decisions moving forward, Hoffman spoke to KJZZ's The Show.

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Rocio Hernandez was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2020 to 2022.