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Arizona rolls out recommendations for reopening schools as coronavirus continues
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Arizona rolls out recommendations for reopening schools as coronavirus continues

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series

State seeks to reduce coronavirus risk to students, staff

Arizona’s top education official wants schools to plan for reopening even as she concedes she doesn’t know how much money they will have — and that it’s virtually impossible to guarantee a risk-free environment.

In a 41-page “road map” released Monday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman provided a series of options for local school districts to consider as they figure out the best course of action going forward for 1.1 million youngsters in more than 2,000 school buildings.

Among the recommendations provided to Arizona schools and vetted by education, community and health officials:

  •  Physical distancing of children, including partitions between desks and limited seating on school buses;
  •  Closing communal areas such as playgrounds and cafeterias, and serving individually plated or home-packed meals using disposable utensils and dishes;
  •  Encouraging staff and students to stay home when sick and eliminating “perfect attendance” awards;
  •  Screening students for symptoms, which may include temperature checks;
  •  Staggered times for parents to drop off and pick up children;
  •  Creating small class sizes “when possible.”

And when physical distancing does not work, the plan says schools should consider other strategies to limit the spread of disease including the use of cloth face masks, emphasizing hand-washing and sanitizing surfaces.

Still, the bottom line comes down to whether, even when implementing all of these strategies, it’s possible to keep students and staff safe. And that problem can be multiplied in younger age groups where it may be unrealistic to try to keep kids apart, which is why, even in the best of circumstances, children come home from school with head lice.

“I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that this is about decreasing risk,” Hoffman said.

“But in our school settings … it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate the risk,” she said. “A school is a place where people congregate, where kids come together and adults come together, so there’s always going to be some level of risk.”

Hoffman said the report includes various recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like the issue of distancing and wearing masks.

“But we also recognize and are realistic that that may not be feasible for every school community,” she continued. “If these mitigation strategies are not feasible, then one of the considerations would be to not open and to provide more distance learning or have more online options.”

And the road map does say that is an option.

Another option is a hybrid program where students spend only part of the week in a school building. However, the formula for state aid currently does not recognize this as an option, Hoffman said.

Hoffman emphasized that none of the proposals or suggestions are mandates.

“This is not a one-size-fits all,” Hoffman said. “This is meant to be flexible and adaptable to help our school leaders think through all different types of scenarios and work within their own communities to create plans that are best for their unique needs.”

Some of that, Hoffman said, is likely to be based on the rate of infection, with some communities having above-average spread of COVID-19 than others.

FLEXIBILITY, SUPPORT NEEDED

Despite the lengthy list of recommendations, Pima County Schools Superintendent Dustin Williams says “at the end of the day, schools are going to be on their own to develop a plan.”

Schools need funding and flexibility to implement hybrid models of learning that are right for their community, he said.

“Everybody else is slowly opening,” he said. “We haven’t even had a chance to put a student on school grounds yet. So to ask us to open up right out of the gates is like turning on a fire hose. We don’t want to do that. We want to make sure that the schools and the kids and the parents and everyone has support and feels comfortable.”

Schools will need legislative change to have flexibility to implement remote learning while still receiving enough funds to operate. For this coming school year, rather than basing funding on current enrollment numbers, schools should get their prior year budget funding, Williams said.

If schools open with only a percentage of the student body on campus, it will be easier to monitor and control what is going on with the virus. Social distancing in Arizona classrooms — one of the most packed in the nation — would require having less kids on campus at one time. That could be achieved by first bringing back kids who are at a lower health risk, staggering schedules or encouraging certain populations to do remote learning, such as seniors who are on track to graduate.

“No matter what, there’s a risk,” Williams said. “The key is how do we mitigate it, and how do we keep it as minimal as possible.”

The Arizona Department of Education’s road map also says schools need a contingency plan for the possibility of future emergency short-notice closures.

“We need to make sure that the schools have as much support and as much flexibility as possible, from the governor’s office and ADE, to go remote learning on the switch of a dime because if we see big outbreaks, schools are going to have to do that,” Williams says.

TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo says the road map to reopening is a useful framework that contains important guidelines and considerations for teachers, students, families and community stakeholders but will take money to implement.

“The road map’s recommendations for social distancing, health protocols, testing and a hybrid instructional model that allows families to opt for either online distance learning or traditional instruction are very important but will be very costly to implement,” he said. “My hope is that there will be resources and additional funding necessary to fully craft a plan that implements these recommendations.”

Tucson’s largest school district has been surveying parents, students and school staff and will be releasing more details on their reopening plan in the coming weeks.

Sunnyside, Tucson’s second-largest district, is also surveying families and employees to design a reopening plan. Ultimately, it’s not the funding mechanism that will dictate what next school year looks like, but the district’s families, says Superintendent Steve Holmes. He anticipates there will be some level of remote learning.

“Parents are going to dictate whether they’re going to send their children to school based upon your own personal beliefs around the safety that’s in place for their children,” he said. “So we have to plan with that first and foremost in mind. Ideally, the funding is actually supportive of the flexibility we need.”

ACADEMIC, FINANCIAL TOLL

The bottom line is, the reopening recommendations — whether for more teachers, more classroom space, more computers for online learning, or even disinfecting solutions — involves money as the state is looking at a deficit for the coming fiscal year that could hit $1.6 billion.

The good news, Hoffman said, is that Arizona has about $1 billion in its “rainy-day fund.” And the schools chief said that, unlike other states, there is no realistic talk about actually reducing state aid to schools.

As to those additional costs, Hoffman said the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs is reimbursing schools for things like dividers and personal protective equipment. She also noted schools are getting allocations through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

But there’s something else.

State aid — the largest share of school dollars — is tied to attendance. If parents opt to send their children to online schools, the money follows them.

That’s not the only problem. Hoffman said there’s also the economic fallout from the pandemic, citing her conversations with Fernando Parra, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District.

“They’ve already seen a high number of their families moving back to Mexico or moving elsewhere to seek employment opportunities,” she said.

Hoffman wants lawmakers to enact measures to protect schools against a sudden and huge loss of state aid that is tied directly to attendance. She specifically is seeking to limit year-over-year reductions to no more than 2% to enable schools to budget now even though they have no idea how many students actually will show up later this summer when classes are set to resume.

“I’ve been urging on legislators and Gov. (Doug) Ducey and his team to continue to collaborate with us on making any legislative changes that are needed in the near future,” she said.

It’s not just money.

Hoffman acknowledged that when students return, there will be a lot of questions about what, if anything, they learned during the months that they were supposed to be continuing their education at home.

She said that occurs at the beginning of every school year as teachers evaluate what those in their classroom know. Now, Hoffman said, there will need to be a much quicker evaluation “so that it’s usable immediately by the teachers, by the staff to identify which kids are needing the most support and perhaps need smaller groups ... and kids that need the most help.”

Hoffman also said schools may want to experiment with the idea that grade levels are arbitrary.

“There may be kids that, during this time, have jumped ahead a grade level and maybe students who are working and need a lot more review from this past academic year that have really missed a lot,” she said.

A recent survey showed that 18% of parents with school-age kids are not willing to send them back to campuses — something the schools chief believes can be addressed with more information.

“I would encourage them to be as involved as possible and for our schools to be over-communicating with the families on what types of policies and procedures they are putting into place to make schools as safe as possible,” she said.

Hoffman added she sees that 18% as a snapshot of current attitudes, counting on things changing in the coming months — up or down — depending on the spread of the virus. And she said she presumes that most students who don’t return to classrooms will get educated through various online options.

Contact reporter Danyelle Khmara at

dkhmara@tucson.com or 573-4223.

On Twitter: @DanyelleKhmara.

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