PHOENIX — Arizona schools will reopen in August, pretty much no matter what is going on with COVID-19, Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday.
And summer schools — and schools that operate on a year-round basis — can open in June if ready to follow new guidelines.
Ducey also gave the go-ahead Thursday for summer day camps to open as early as next week and announced that youth sports can restart immediately.
The governor and Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director, acknowledged the risk of having children together in classrooms. That’s why schools were shuttered on March 15.
But Christ said it isn’t that simple.
“There’s a lot of public health reasons why we would want kids in school. They provide a lot more services than just education.
“Schools provide nutrition, they provide safe environments, they provide physical activity,” Christ said. “All of this is important for the ongoing health of these kids, especially as they grow.”
She said that requires looking at it “from a holistic public health approach.”
“We are weighing it against the risk of transmission of the virus and that’s one of the things we’re taking into account,” Christ said.
She said there must be flexibility to provide alternatives to students and faculty who may themselves be at extra risk of contacting COVID-19, or have family members who are, and to find ways to keep them safe “while we’re still meeting the needs of the children.”
There are ways to reduce risks, Christ said, ranging from more frequent disinfection of surfaces to not having students gather for assemblies and lunches.
Ducey defended his decision to announce the August reopenings on Thursday, even as the state is still in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls Phase 1. That is the earliest stage of reopening both the economy and public activity, which requires social distancing and prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people in any one place.
“We need parents and teachers and superintendents to be prepared,” Ducey said.
Some details of how this all will work will come next week. State schools chief Kathy Hoffman promised Thursday to issue “guidance to serve as a road map for preparing for a variety of learning options that keep students and teachers safe.”
“This document ... will provide adaptable, flexible recommendations, considerations and resources for districts and charters to plan for the upcoming year,” Hoffman said.
That guidance is expected to be made public on Monday, June 1, after which summer schools and year-round schools may reopen whenever they are ready to meet the requirements, an aide to the governor said.
Summer camps — where reopenings will be limited to day camps until further notice — must also operate under new guidelines issued by the state.
And as youth sports return, Christ said there will be definite limits on the number of parents and spectators allowed to go to games. There will be also other changes, such as cleaning commonly used equipment between players, not allowing participants to hang around before or after the games and requiring adults to wear masks where possible.
The announcements came as Ducey acknowledged there has been an upward tick in the percentage of COVID-19 tests that are coming back positive in Arizona. It went from 5.1% for the period ending May 10, to 6% percent a week after that, and to 6.8% in the most recent week.
Still, he said he remains optimistic.
“If you look at this chart you can possibly see the beginning of a downward trend. The trend is not here yet,” he conceded.
It can take up to seven days for the state to get complete numbers from laboratories.
“This is something that we’ll continue to monitor,” Ducey said.
He said the decision to have students return to schools is being made from “a public health perspective,” and he turned to his health director to answer specific questions at the announcement.
“We know that we’ve had day care and child care in place where kids have been in a congregate setting,” Christ said.
She said that state and school officials are already in discussions, coming up with plans for how to deal with 1.1 million children returning to classrooms.
Distance or “virtual” learning will be provided for students and teachers who are “at risk,” she said.
Also key, Christ said, will be smaller class sizes and disinfecting protocols “and a lot of safety things put into place.”
She said she looks at the issue not just as health director, but also as a mother of three elementary school children.
“It’s important to get these children back into school, back into a normal routine,” she said.
It’s “going to be a new normal,” with more frequent hand-washing, physical distancing, and not mixing at lunch or having large assemblies.
That gets into the question of cost.
Several studies say Arizona schools have larger class sizes than most other states. Physical-space requirements aside, schools also will need to purchase supplies like hand sanitizer.
“That was definitely a part of the discussion that we had with superintendents, what were the needs of the schools, how would we work on flexibility for people with that underlying health condition, and what the cost would be,” Ducey said.
He said that there is money in the state budget as well as about $1 billion in Arizona’s “rainy-day fund.” On top of that, the federal government is providing coronavirus relief dollars for education, he said.
“So we do have some options,” Ducey said. “And we’ll want to make the proper decisions so that we can successfully reopen our schools in a safe way for our kids, their teachers, the staff and the employees.”
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