PHOENIX — The way the state health department calculates it, is is now safe for schools in four Arizona counties to begin offering some in-person instruction.
But that’s only a suggestion. Local school boards are free to ignore them.
And, according to an aide to state schools chief Kathy Hoffman, it was designed that way.
The four counties that have met the three benchmarks are Apache, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai. That means each of them has had fewer than 7% of their COVID-19 tests come back positive for two weeks, fewer than 10% of people showing up at hospitals with COVID-like symptoms, and two weeks with fewer than 100 cases for every 100,000 residents.
“This means hybrid instruction,” said Ritchie Taylor of the state Department of Education, some sort of system where children are taught part-time in school and part-time online. That could be having half-day sessions for some students, classroom instruction only certain days of the week or any other model.
But Taylor said how that works is up to each school district.
“We do not have an ideal hybrid,” he said.
“That’s going to look different based on the size of the school, the resources available,” Taylor explained. “But the goal is limiting the number of people that are congregating in any one space.”
There are a few things that the state health department, which worked to craft safety standards, has said are expected when students are in classrooms. That includes masks for both students and staff, screening for symptoms and enhanced cleaning protocols.
Field trips and large gatherings are out. Communal spaces like lunchrooms are closed.
And the health department wants what it calls “cohorting,” keeping the same group of students together. That way, if one gets sick, it spreads only to the children in the group and not the whole school.
But specifics beyond those are left to individual districts — as are the decisions of whether to open or not.
What we heard from our stakeholder conversations over the summer from school leaders is they wanted to have flexibility to work with their communities,” Taylor said. Beyond that, he said there was a belief that the state should defer to the extent possible to the locally elected school board members
And there’s something else.
“Mandates can work both ways,” Taylor said. “We wanted schools to be able to decide, even if they met the benchmarks, that they wanted to continue to do distance learning that they could make that decision for themselves.”
And, conversely, it permits school boards to decide to reopen, either fully or partly, even when the area does not meet the benchmarks.
One ongoing issue is having the technology for students to be able to learn remotely.
“That’s an ongoing challenge, not just in Arizona but nationwide,” Taylor said.
On the financial side, he said districts can use their share of federal coronavirus grants to purchase computers. And he said the state has relaxed its procurement requirements to make it easier to acquire the needed equipment.
But it’s not just about money. There’s also the question of availability of appropriate equipment.
“Everyone’s moved on line, working from home,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of stuff on backorder.”