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Arizona schools chief: Keep schools closed to in-person instruction for two weeks
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Arizona schools chief: Keep schools closed to in-person instruction for two weeks

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Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman wants Gov. Doug Ducey to keep schools closed due to COVID spikes.

PHOENIX — The state’s top school official wants Gov. Doug Ducey to keep schools closed to in-person learning for two weeks following the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Most Tucson school districts already have chosen to remain or scale back to online learning when the new semester starts Monday. That includes Tucson Unified, Sunnyside, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita, Amphi, Vail and Tanque Verde. Many private and charter schools plan to continue in-person instruction.

“Given the severity of our state’s situation and the virus’ trajectory after the holiday period, Gov. Doug Ducey should order schools to remain in distance learning for a limited two-week period,” Kathy Hoffman said Saturday afternoon. She said opening schools immediately after the Christmas holidays given the level of infection would be “reckless.”

President-elect Joe Biden introduced Miguel Cardona as his pick for education secretary on Wednesday, saying Connecticut's education chief and life-long champion of public schools is the right pick to lead the department as the nation struggles to educate students safely during the pandemic.

Hoffman pointed out that the Department of Health Services has found that the risk of infection in the state is considered “substantial.” That includes an average of 648 cases per 100,000 residents, far above what is considered in the moderate risk range of anything below 100 cases.

She also noted that 17.5% of the tests for the virus are coming back positive and that more than 14% of hospital visits are for COVID-like illness.

Even more significant is that the figures the health department uses to determine current risk levels in Arizona actually are two weeks old. Since that time all of the numbers have gone even higher and hospitals are at record-low level of beds to care for patients.

But an aide to the governor said he has no interest in doing that.

“Governor Ducey will not be considering this request or issuing this kind of mandate,” said spokesman C.J. Karamargin. More to the point, he said there is no need for such an action.

“This is a local decision,” Karamargin said.

And even if it were not, he said that Ducey doesn’t think keeping schools closed any longer makes sense.

“The governor has repeatedly made his preference clear: Kids have already lost out on a lot of learning and he wants schools opened, safely,” Karamargin said.

Hoffman said the two-week period she is suggesting is designed to coincide with a standard quarantine period after people may have been exposed. She said she understands that nothing in either state law or gubernatorial guidance precludes a local school board from unilaterally extending online learning for another two weeks.

But the schools chief said a broader mandate is appropriate.

“We’re coming back from the holidays and cases are through the roof,” Hoffman said. “Right now it seems reckless for any schools to be offering in-person instruction.”

The most recent data shows another 46 deaths were reported Saturday, bringing the statewide total of 9,061. And another 8,883 new cases puts the statewide tally at more than 539,000.

Even with all that, Hoffman said some districts are not listening to the recommendations of their local health departments, which have warned of the spread of the virus if students go back to class.

Anyway, Hoffman said, it’s not like she proposing that schools remain shuttered for an indefinite period.

“It’s just for two weeks,” she said. And Hoffman said schools still are generally required to provide a safe place for students during the day, even if all learning is remote.

What makes it more dangerous, Hoffman said, is that Arizona hospitals are filling up.

More than 60% of beds in intensive-care units are occupied by patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. When other non-COVID patients are added to the mix, that leaves just 132 ICU beds available statewide for those who need it, just 7% of capacity.

In-patient bed usage also remains at record levels, with just a 7% vacancy rate.

And there are more patients on ventilators now than there have been since the pandemic began.

Banner Health Systems, the state’s largest hospital network, already is turning away ambulances and transfers from other hospitals, though it is still accepting walk-in patients who need emergency care.

Several hospitals also have stopped doing elective procedures, those that doctors determine can wait a few weeks without endangering the life or health of the patient.

“Our teachers who are being asked to go teach in person despite the very high risk and high spread of COVID in the community are very fearful,” she said. “If they get sick are they going to be able to get care in a medical facility?”

The schools chief noted there is another reason that a delay may help stop the spread.

She pointed out that the priority that state health officials have set for who gets the vaccine puts teachers and school staff into the 1-B category, second behind health care workers and staffers in long-term care facilities. That 1-B category also includes child-care workers, public safety personnel and those age 75 and older.

State health officials have said they hope to begin administering to those in the 1-B category this month, though for the moment that will include only the first of what needs to be a two-shot regimen. But there is believed to be some protection offered from just that first inoculation.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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