As a mom of young kids attending in-person learning, nothing is more important to me than the health of our kids and the safety of our schools. Close coordination across the public health system and partnering with our education experts is critical to an effective response and safely returning kids to the classroom.
The Arizona Department of Health Services has worked in partnership with our local and state partners throughout the COVID-19 pandemic response.
In June, ADHS convened the Schools Reopening Workgroup as part of our response efforts. This group includes representation from almost every county health department and the Arizona Department of Education and meets on a weekly basis to ensure consistent communication to schools.
While initial discussions of the Workgroup focused on safely returning to in-person instruction at the start of the school year, more recent discussions are centered on triggers for recommendations to a return to hybrid or virtual learning and approaches to addressing COVID-19 cases and outbreaks in schools.
ADHS has released recommendations on benchmarks that can be monitored to determine educational delivery models within schools (i.e. in-person, hybrid, virtual). These benchmarks measure COVID-19 case rates, percent positivity and hospital COVID-like illness.
During conversations with the Schools Reopening Workgroup, partners expressed concern about the instability that would occur if recommendations to move back to virtual learning were based on a change in one benchmark.
Especially in smaller, rural counties, an increase in just two or three cases would result in a significant increase in the rates of COVID-19 or a change in the percent positivity that may shift a school from hybrid instruction to virtual instruction. This variability could cause weekly shifts in educational delivery model recommendations, resulting in uncertainty for families and schools as they plan for upcoming weeks.
Based on these concerns, ADHS made school guidance and benchmarks a weekly discussion item on our Workgroup calls.
Starting on Oct. 2, ADHS worked with the experts on the Workgroup to revise the guidance, update documents and discuss changes to the dashboard to provide more stability in the recommendation.
As with the Business Dashboard, ADHS determined that all three transmission benchmarks should be the substantial category before a county moves into the substantial category on the Schools Dashboard with a recommendation that districts and charter schools begin planning for virtual learning. Should this occur, ADHS recommends that school leaders work with local health officials to determine the appropriate next steps.
The look and feel of the Schools Dashboard has also been updated to match the Business dashboard. Now that all counties have met the initial school reopening metrics, recommendations for a school district’s educational delivery model are based on the transmission category of the county in which the school operates and recommendations provided by their local health departments. This updated dashboard now shows all three categories, minimal, moderate and substantial, instead of just red and green categories to indicate whether reopening metrics had been met.
Important things remain the same:
• ADHS recommends that schools work with their local health departments when even a single benchmark is in the substantial category.
• Schools must report any outbreaks to local health officials within 24 hours and keep their school communities updated on their responses.
Unlike the business benchmarks, school benchmarks are recommendations to school districts about the type of learning that should be considered depending upon the COVID-19 data. Schools should continue to work with their local health departments that have more specific local data to inform recommendations.
On Oct. 16, ADHS informed the Workgroup about the implementation of the revised guidance starting Oct. 22. Last week, these changes were rolled out on our Schools webpage.
However, as has been the case since the guidance and benchmarks were initially released, school districts should continue to work with their local health departments when one benchmark moves into the substantial category.
The health and safety of our kids and protecting their loved ones at home is one of our highest priorities. Continued coordination and communication with public health partners and other stakeholders is essential to ensure a robust and effective public health response to COVID-19 in Arizona.
As the pandemic evolves, public health will continue to be flexible in adapting to new information to make the best recommendations possible to protect the health and wellness of all Arizonans.
Dr. Cara Christ is director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. Learn more at azdhs.gov.