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Arizona schools to split $270M to help reopen during COVID-19 pandemic
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Arizona schools to split $270M to help reopen during COVID-19 pandemic

From the June's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: Bars, gyms face shutdowns; Tucsonans worried telemedicine might disappear series
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Gov. Doug Ducey’s plan to protect Arizona schools from budget shortfalls includes $200 million from the CARES Act.

PHOENIX — Arizona schools will divide up $270 million in federal cash to help them get started when classes resume.

The plan announced Wednesday by Gov. Doug Ducey includes $200 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to protect schools against budget shortfalls due to anticipated enrollment declines.

In essence, it guarantees that schools will have at least 98% of the state aid they were getting this past school year.

That is crucial as state aid is based on the number of students in attendance. And a survey done last month by the political consulting firm HighGround found 20% of adults with children in school said they would not send them back next year given fears of COVID-19.

And if 20% of a district’s students choose not to start when the doors open, that would normally translate to a 20% drop in aid. With basic aid at $5,500 per student, that would have taken a real bite out of the money schools get.

The plan also contemplates that schools will provide more instruction online than in traditional years. Part of the $200 million is earmarked as funding for remote learning.

Potentially more significant, the state will provide full funding even for students who are not sitting in a classroom all day, five days a week.

This is particularly crucial for districts that want to have more flexible schedules to reduce the number of students in a classroom at any one time, said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

For example, he said Eloy schools are looking at a plan where half the students would attend in the morning and then be sent home with assignments for the afternoon. The other half would have homework in the morning and go to class for the rest of the day.

Without this flexibility, Essigs said, districts would get funded only on a half-time basis for each student.

There is a catch, though: In order to be eligible, schools must be open to all students five days a week.

That does not preclude a district from deciding that it wants its students going on alternate days to limit the number in any classroom. But it does mean that if a parent has nowhere else to send a child, the school must agree to take him or her every day — not just the days the student otherwise would attend — even if it means that child stays in the library.

“This plan provides schools with the flexibility to ensure Arizona students continue to receive a quality education, whether through distance learning or in the classroom,” Ducey said in a prepared statement. He said it “provides parents with options that work best for their families.”

The guaranteed funding and flexibility are the most crucial for schools, said Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association. The only question, he said, is whether there’s enough money in the plan.

“I hope that that $200 million holds up,” he said.

On top of the $200 million, the plan allocates another $69 million that Ducey received from the CARES program. The largest share of that, $40 million, is earmarked for bridging the “digital divide.”

The closure of schools earlier this year brought into focus the fact that many students lack access to the internet at home.

Much of the $40 million will go to expanding access to broadband in rural Arizona, with a new connection to Flagstaff by the end of next year and plans for more conduit and fiber along Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales.

What’s not included, however, is any money to purchase computers or high-speed modems for individual students. But aides to the governor said schools may have access to other funds, including $27 million that state schools chief Kathy Hoffman has in discretionary dollars.

Another $20 million is set aside to help students catch up on what many missed after in-person instruction disappeared when the governor and Hoffman shuttered schools in the middle of March due to the pandemic.

These funds, however, would be given out in grants, with eligibility based on various indicators of academic need and accessibility to resources. Traditional school districts and charter operations would apply for one-time funding.

Ducey also is putting $6 million into the Arizona Teachers Academy he got lawmakers to create several years ago in a bid to convince more college students to go into the classroom by paying for their college tuition.

The COVID-19 outbreak has only increased the number of older teachers leaving the profession, worsening what the governor’s office is calling the “Gray Wave” or “Silver Tsunami.”

The $6 million in additional dollars, on top of $15 million already in the state budget for the academy, should provide enough to pay the tuition of another approximately 1,200 college students.

One thing not in the plan is funding to cover what are expected to be higher transportation costs.

Essigs said schools won’t be able to fill buses with students, as had been done before, and yet still maintain the required social distancing. That, he said, will result in more trips, meaning more gasoline and, eventually, more wear-and-tear on buses.

Aides to Ducey said schools have direct access to other money, including funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that could be directed to cover some of those costs.

Overall, Essigs said, he sees the plan as a positive development. “At least it’s better than what it was before,” he said.

Other elements include:

  • $1 million for “school innovation microgrants” for innovative programs.
  • $1 million for new vehicles for the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and the Blind.
  • $700,00 to expand the Beat the Odds program to help train school leaders, particularly in rural and underperforming schools.
  • $500,000 for the Teach for America program to provide tutoring to children defined as the most in need.

Also, school districts will be exempt from normal procurement rules — meaning going out and soliciting bids — for cleaning supplies and any other personal protective equipment needed.

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Arizona's liquor-license regulators have begun enforcement actions against bars that don't require employees and patrons to take safety measures to prevent or slow COVID-19 spread, Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday. Ducey said Arizona is being hit hard by the coronavirus, but he isn't issuing any new executive orders because his plan is public education and the urging of personal responsibility. He was pressed to explain why President Trump's Phoenix rally Tuesday was allowed to have a crowd of unmasked, shoulder-to-shoulder attendees.

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