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Ducey defends school reopenings in areas that haven't met safety benchmarks for COVID-19
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Ducey defends school reopenings in areas that haven't met safety benchmarks for COVID-19

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PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey is defending hard-and-fast limits on when businesses can reopen, while saying it’s OK for schools to send children back to class even if local health conditions do not meet the guidelines set by his state health director.

And Ducey said that, unlike the restrictions on businesses, he has no interest in making those safety guidelines for schools mandatory — even as some districts plan to reopen despite not meeting the benchmarks.

“We’ve got different variations of spread throughout the state,” Ducey said Thursday, adding that the state, and most of the counties, are “headed in the right direction.”

“So what we wanted to do is provide a menu of options and flexibility in the guidelines so there’s safety inside our schools,” he said. But he said the “ultimate and final decisions” go to superintendents and principals. “And I’m confident they’ll make good decisions,” he said.

The guidelines released last week say that schools should consider a three-part test before offering any in-person instruction:

  • A decline in the number of COVID-19 cases for at least two weeks;
  • Two weeks where the percentage of tests coming back positive for COVID-19 is less than 7%;
  • Fewer than 10% of hospital visits for at least two weeks are for people with COVID-like symptoms.

The benchmarks are set on a county-by-county basis, with the guidelines saying all three conditions should be met.

As of Thursday, 11 counties met two of the three benchmarks, while Pima, Gila, Graham and Greenlee met only one.

The health department has set similar benchmarks for reopening of now-shuttered businesses. Only two counties, Cochise and Yavapai, have reached the point where spread is considered “moderate” and some of these businesses can reopen, albeit on a limited basis.

But while business activity is strictly regulated by those benchmarks, that’s not the case for schools.

Officials in several districts have announced they plan to start in-person instruction this coming week.

Ducey said he sees nothing wrong with that.

Some of it, he said, comes down to local conditions.

“Part of this is around being able to physically distance, wearing masks,” the governor said. “We have some school districts that are packed with children. We have others where there’s more room and availability.”

Asked about the benchmarks, he responded: “We’re not ignoring the benchmarks.”

“Many of the districts are close on the benchmarks,” Ducey said. “And they’re making decisions.”

That drew questions about why the same options are not open to businesses in counties where the governor said it’s safe enough to send kids to school.

“Because we’ve been in the unhappy but responsible business of dispersing large adult gatherings,” Ducey responded.

That, in turn, raised questions about whether it is safer to have large gatherings of children rather than large gatherings of adults.

“There’s still a lot that we’re trying to learn about the virus,” responded Dr. Cara Christ, the state health director.

For example, she said, it appears that children do not transmit the virus “as effectively as adults.” Still, Christ said, a lot is still unknown.

But is it a risk to send children back into the classroom?

“It’s going to depend on those mitigation measures,” Christ said.

“If they can appropriately physically distance, if they make them wear the masks, if they are able to cohort groups, that would be a safe environment for kids to return,” she said.

The last category involves keeping kids in the same group all day so that if there is an outbreak it spreads only to that group and not the entire school.

Anyway, Christ said she believes the issue of where kids learn — at home or in class — goes beyond the question of safety.

“There’s so many things that happen at school that are important for the appropriate growth and development of children that if we can get them back into the classroom, we want to get them back in the classroom,” she said.

The safety question is controversial. In Queen Creek Unified School District, for example, some teachers have resigned since the school board voted 4-1 to reopen earlier this week. Ducey made it clear he’s not siding with those teachers.

“I support the principals, I support the superintendents and I support the parents,” he said when asked about the situation. “I feel that they have the best interests of the kids at heart.”

The governor said teachers also have the interests of children in mind, but seemed to separate those willing to return from those who are not.

“There’s a lot of teachers that can’t wait to get to the front of the classroom,” he said.

On the subject of businesses, the governor brushed aside a series of lawsuits accusing him of acting illegally, including keeping their operations closed and preventing landlords from evicting tenants who have not been paying rent.

“My reaction is, get in line, all right?” he responded. “We’re doing everything we can to protect people in this state, to protect the most vulnerable through a public-health emergency and an economic disruption,” Ducey said. “And we’ll continue to do it.”

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The guidelines take into consideration the percentage of residents who test positive, the percentage of people showing up at hospitals with coronavirus symptoms and the rate of infection. However, nothing in the standards is mandatory. 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.

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