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Arizona releases COVID-19 benchmarks for when schools should be able to safely reopen

Arizona releases COVID-19 benchmarks for when schools should be able to safely reopen

  • Updated
John B. Wright Elementary School, coronavirus

State health officials say Apache, Greenlee, La Paz and Yavapai counties have met the necessary COVID-19 benchmarks for some in-person school instruction to resume.

Arizona health officials laid out a three-part test Thursday for when they say it will be safe for schools to reopen, in full or in part.

In essence, the guidelines say it will be safe to again have kids in the classroom when:

  • Fewer than 7% of area residents tested for COVID-19 are positive for the virus;
  • The number of people showing up at local hospitals with COVID-like symptoms is less than 10% of all visits;
  • A rate of infection drops below 100 cases for every 100,000 residents.

Failure to meet even one of those benchmarks, according to state health director Cara Christ, indicates that schools should remain shuttered.

But even that last category comes with an escape clause of sorts. Schools could still meet that specific benchmark if there has been a decline in the weekly average in the number of cases for two consecutive weeks, even if the infection rate tops 100 per 100,000.

Arizona is not there yet.

“We think it’s going to be several weeks before any county meets those benchmarks,” Christ said. “But we do see it trending down within the next month.”

Christ said she had no predictions and emphasized these decisions generally are going to be made on a county-by-county level, meaning kids could be back in school in one county while those in the adjacent one have only online learning.

The question now is whether any of the more than 200 traditional school districts and charter schools actually will follow the guidelines.

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

That already is happening, with several districts having announced they don’t intend to hold in-person classes until the middle of October.

Christ said she understands that.

“These are recommendations,” she said.

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

Pima County Schools Superintendent Dustin Williams said the benchmarks are confusing and don’t help parents understand when it’s safe to send their children back to school.

“Ducey once again has failed to let the public know exactly what to do,” he said. “We need answers immediately. They need to be very solid and concrete and easy to follow. ... We’ve just waited so long for some nice, clear, concise direction and now we got nothing.”

Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman is discouraging too much individual choice.

“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.”

Hoffman, whose agency was involved in coming up with the guidelines, gave them her endorsement.

“I fully support these metrics,” she said. “It gives us a goalpost of where we need to see the numbers.”

OPTIONS FOR REOPENING

The standards actually are divided into three categories.

First — and most severe — are conditions the state health department said creates conditions for “substantial community spread.”

Those are the numbers outlined in the basic three-part standard. In those cases, any area unable to meet all three criteria should keep their schools closed and all instruction should be online.

There also is a second category of moderate community spread. These involve lower rates of infection and positive test results.

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, including not just the physical distancing that the health department wants — 6 feet between desks — but also allows 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.

But even then, the health department protocols calls for enhanced cleaning, working with students on hand hygiene and “proper respiratory etiquette,” monitoring absenteeism and proper ventilation of classrooms and school buses.

That last category, Christ acknowledged, presents some unique challenges in newer buildings where windows do not open. But she said there are ways of tweaking the ventilation system to get more fresh air into the system. And even leaving the doors of the room open can help.

Christ, in explaining the three-part test to determine when it’s safe to reopen schools, said there’s a reason for providing an alternative to the one which sets the baseline at having an infection rate of fewer than 100 for every 100,000 residents. She said that’s specifically designed for counties with a small population where a few new cases could tip the rate above the cutoff.

“I’m thinking Greenlee (County) had an issue where they had 12 cases reported one week and it shot them from a very, very low case rate up to 119” per 100,000 residents, Christ said. The alternate method — a decline in the average number of cases for two consecutive weeks — helps deal with those kinds of situations.

Williams, the Pima County schools chief, is looking to the county Health Department to help schools understand when it’s safe to reopen.

The county recently convened a Back to School Committee made up of representatives from all local school districts, as well as some charter and private schools. The committee will likely work with a dozen public health and infectious-disease physicians and experts to develop local public-health guidance for a return to in-person instruction.

Until schools get the OK from the county, they need to err on the side of caution and stick with remote learning as much as possible, Williams said.

special-needs studentsOne big issue is that the executive order issued by Gov. Doug Ducey requires schools to open their doors by Aug. 17 for students who need somewhere to go.

Hoffman said that’s mainly designed as a “safety net” for students with special needs, things like special-education students and counseling services for kids with mental-health needs. She also said some districts intend to offer space for children of “essential workers.”

But she conceded that, under federal law, schools that are not yet offering full-time or hybrid classes will not be able to turn away any child who shows up at their door, even if they do not fall into one of the eligible categories.

Hoffman said, though, that schools need not provide that space in traditional classrooms. She said some districts are working with local YMCA organizations and Boys and Girls Clubs to provide somewhere safe, complete with computers, so that these students still can participate in online learning.

Even as school districts make decisions to reopen, Christ said that still leaves wiggle room for parents, allowing them to keep their children home.

“We know that some parents are not going to be comfortable sending their kids back until there’s a vaccine or until there’s minimal spread,” she said. But the health director said that’s not her preference.

“We do feel it’s important to get kids back into the classroom,” Christ said. And she said it’s about more than just the educational opportunities.

“It provides the social and emotional opportunities,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the place where the kids get nutrition, they get physical activity, they get mental-health services. So we do want to get them back.”

There is a potential complicating factor.

“Despite schools’ best efforts to retain their teachers and find ways for them to feel comfortable for them to teach in this incredibly challenging environment and challenging times, there are increased rates of teachers resigning,” Hoffman said. She said reasons range from being fearful for their own personal health to family needs.


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