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Ducey defends schools reopening without meeting COVID-19 benchmarks

Gov. Doug Ducey defended some school districts' decisions to resume in-person classes next week, even though their counties don't meet the COVID-19 criteria that his administration established for when schools could reopen safely.

The Arizona Department of Health Services last week unveiled its recommended benchmarks that school districts and charter schools can use to determine when it's safe to open. The three-tiered system uses three metrics: percentage of COVID tests that are positive, the percentage of hospital visits that are for COVID-like illnesses and the number of cases per 100,000 people.

Though ADHS recommended that schools continue remote-only learning until their county's testing positive rate is below 10%, the agency said last week that it would be better for schools to wait until that metric hits the 7% mark. If a county has more than 100 COVID cases per 100,000 people, the recommendations green-light a school's shift from remote-only learning to a hybrid system if that number has dropped for two consecutive weeks.

But the recommendations aren't mandatory, and some districts are taking advantage of that.

The governing boards for the Queen Creek Unified School District and J.O. Combs Unified School District in San Tan Valley voted this week to resume in-person classes on Aug. 17, which was the original target date for schools to reopen, even though neither Maricopa nor Pinal County meets the criteria for doing so. The East Valley Institute of Technology and American Leadership Academy charter schools will also begin in-person instruction on Monday.

Nonetheless, Ducey supported the districts' decisions, despite their sidestepping of "data-driven benchmarks" that he described as "the most responsible way to safely reopen in a gradual and cautious way."

"The state is headed in the right direction. Most of our counties are headed in the right direction. So, what we wanted to do was provide a menu of options and flexibility in the guidelines so that there's safety inside our schools," Ducey said at a press briefing on Thursday. "We're going to leave ultimate and final decision to superintendents and principals, and I'm confident they'll make good decisions."

ABC15 reported that two Queen Creek teachers quit their jobs in response to the district's reopening.

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Ducey said the benchmarks were meant to help districts guide their decision-making, and said they left schools with a great deal of flexibility. He and ADHS Director Cara Christ emphasized that schools are also supposed to take other measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, such as masking, physical distancing and sanitation. Ducey also noted that schools can still offer remote learning for parents who don't think it's safe to send their children back to brick-and-mortar schools. Both Queen Creek and J.O. Combs will continue providing online instruction.

No county has yet fully hit the benchmarks that ADHS recommends before districts end online-only learning. But as of Thursday, when this week's numbers were updated, several are close, Christ noted.

"The safety is going to depend on the mitigation steps that those schools are employing. They're supposed to post what they're going to do to keep the students safe on their website," she said.

Christ added, "There are so many things that happen at school that are important for the appropriate growth and development for children that, if we can get them back into the classroom, we want to get them back in the classroom."

State schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, who announced the benchmarks with Christ last week, isn't as sanguine about the situation. The superintendent tweeted on Wednesday that all school districts should abide by the guidelines, and that ignoring them is a "disservice to the educators who continue providing instruction via distance learning & families who are supporting distance learning..

Spokesman Richie Taylor said Hoffman believes districts shouldn't be flouting the guidelines, though she doesn't necessarily think those recommendations should be mandatory.

"The superintendent believed that the benchmarks should be followed. That hasn't changed. The superintendent also believes that schools should be listening to their educators and staff as they make these decisions," Taylor told the Arizona Mirror.

Taylor said districts aren't required to offer distance learning once they resume in-person instruction, but said the Arizona Department of Education believes they should continue providing that option to students.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Pool photo/Sean Logan/The Arizona Republic

Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during a press conference regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on Aug. 13, 2020.


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