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Arizona education officials worry students, teachers will stay away despite delay
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Arizona education officials worry students, teachers will stay away despite delay

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Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman said there’s no guarantee in the state that there will be children in classrooms, or that it will be safe to open schools on Aug. 17.

PHOENIX — A two-week delay in the start of in-classroom learning ordered by Gov. Doug Ducey may give schools more time to prepare to teach in the middle of the pandemic.

But that assumes students — and teachers — are going to show up at school in August.

“A lot of parents are ready for their kids to go back,” said Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. And he said teachers also are ready.

But Thomas said it’s not that simple in the days of COVID-19.

“We’re all starting to learn that there are people that we know who either they have it, or their kids have it or a family member has it,” he said of the coronavirus.

“So there’s a lot of anxiety,” Thomas explained. “They want to be back. But they just don’t feel safe.”

Even Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman said there’s no guarantee that there will be children in classrooms, or that it will be safe to open schools on Aug. 17. Instead, Hoffman says she expects that date will be when education officials will evaluate conditions at that time.

“And there is a potential for that date to shift,” Hoffman said.

It all might come down to how extensive COVID-19 infections remain in the state, said Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association.

“We don’t know any better than anybody else what the numbers are going to look like,” he said. But the issue, said Kotterman, is even more basic than that.

“We do know that we have a lot of school staff who had expressed a lot of concern about coming back into the classroom when the numbers are so high,” he said.

Hoffman agreed, saying any final decisions will have to be based on whether parents are willing, and ready, to send their children back into classrooms.

“We have seen and heard directly from families and also from teachers and school staff this growing sense of anxiety and fear about returning to the school setting,” she said.

Hoffman said some districts already have been sending out surveys to both parents and staffers to find out if they’re ready to be in a classroom setting.

“I think that’s going to continue to be a challenge,” she said.

“It’s really hard to address those emotions because the COVID-19 virus is with us for now,” Hoffman said. “We don’t know when we’re not going to be living under these circumstances.”

And the schools chief made it clear she’s not seeking to minimize those concerns.

“We’re talking about our loved ones,” she said.

Hoffman said a lot of this is linked to the announcements Monday from the governor in the latest efforts to curb the spread of the virus, including promoting and enforcing social distancing.

“We can’t even have groups of more than 10 people at the pool,” Hoffman said. “How can we possibly open our schools safely where we know that we have classrooms of 20, 30 or more students and high schools with upwards of thousands of students and teachers all coming together.”

Even the governor conceded that Aug. 17 start date is “aspirational.”

And if last school year is an indication, those dates tend to slip. Ducey’s original mid-March order got extended by another two weeks before he and Hoffman pulled the plug on the rest of the academic year, telling schools to do the best they can in remote and online education.

If nothing else, there seems to be an agreement that pushing the start date for the new year back at least two weeks — if not longer — makes sense.

“It has become clear over the past couple of weeks that it is just not safe for students and staff to congregate in-person at school facilities,” Hoffman said. “This was an unfortunate, but necessary decision to protect the healthy and safety of all Arizonans.”

The new date to start school gives schools more time to consider options, said Thomas, of the state education association. And he said it might provide time to answer some questions about whether classrooms can be made safe — or at least relatively risk free in an enclosed space.

“The Centers for Disease Control says you should be in a ventilated room,” Thomas said. And that, he said doesn’t mean simply having a vent in the room.

“They mean open the windows,” he said. “There’s not a school that can afford to open the windows in August.”

And until educators can feel safe, Thomas said, they’re going to be reticent to return.

How many will stay away remains unclear. Thomas said he expects to release a survey of AEA members later this week.

In announcing a delay in in-class learning, the governor did say schools can actually start operations on schedule — but only using online or remote teaching.

“It does have the benefit of starting to get teachers paid when they would normally expect to get paid,” said Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials.

Potentially more significant, he said, is that starting “classes” as scheduled in early August eliminates the need for schools to either extend their academic year or eliminate mid-year breaks to get the required 180 days of education necessary to qualify for full state aid. But that online start raises other issues, starting with the fact that some students lack access to computers as well as high-speed speed internet connections to actually participate.

“That was not something we could solve over the last several weeks or months,” said Hoffman.

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