Gov. Doug Ducey won’t intercede or criticize school districts that opt to reopen for in-class instruction even though their communities don’t meet the benchmarks set by his own health director.
“We want people to follow the benchmarks,” the governor said at a recent press briefing. The benchmarks are based on what the health department has decided are three key indicators of the spread of COVID-19.
Only two counties have reached that point: Apache and Yavapai.
And there is no indication when conditions in the other 13 counties will get to the place where the health department says schools can begin “hybrid” teaching, meaning a combination of virtual and in-person learning.
Newly released data from Maricopa County shows that about half the county—and almost all of the West Valley—is in a “red” zone, meaning that health officials advise against any reopening of campuses.
Health department spokesman Ron Coleman said that while some districts may show improvement in one or two of the three benchmarks being used to advise school districts on reopening, the map of a district will show the color of the category showing a substantial deviation from the metrics.
“So, if a district is meeting the benchmarks for minimal (green) on two metrics but substantial (red) on one, then it is considered to still be in the substantial category,” Coleman said.
“That hypothetical district would still be recommended to offer virtual learning because at least one metric is still in substantial and has not been lower than that for at least two weeks. To move from substantial to moderate, or moderate to minimal, an area (whether district, ZIP, etc.) must have all metrics in at least that level or better for two weeks or longer,” he said.
But Ducey said he sees these benchmarks as less clear cut.
“They are guidelines,” the governor said. And he said there are other things that should be considered, like trends. He also said there’s the separate question of dealing with those most directly involved.
“There are some parents that want, as soon as it’s possible, to get their children back into a classroom,” Ducey said. “And there are parents that we all know are not putting their child back in the classroom.”
The governor said the state is trying to “provide options” for both.
That’s only part of the issue.
“We also have some teachers that are in a vulnerable category or have an underlying health condition,” Ducey said. “And we will need online learning in this hybrid model.”
All 15 counties meet the first of the three benchmarks: two weeks where hospital visits due to COVID-like illnesses fall below 10% of the total.
And 11 counties are showing a two-week decline in the total number of cases or, in the alternative, a case rate of less than 100 per 100,000 residents. Cochise, Greenee, Pima and Pinal do not.
But only Apache, Cochise, Greenlee and Yavapai counties meet the third prong of having fewer than 7% of the tests for the virus come back positive.
COVID-19 may be just one of the health problems schools face.
“Arizona’s flu season goes about October to May, with our hardest months usually being January to March,” state Health Director Cara Christ said. She promised a public relations campaign in hopes of getting as many people to take the vaccine which is now available.
“While it’s not 100% effective it does significantly reduce hospitalization and complications and bad outcomes,” Christ said.
Ducey hinted that he might use some federal coronavirus dollars to help provide vaccines to those who may not have health insurance.
“I want to find a way that any Arizonan that wants to get a flu shot can get one,” he said. “Details to follow.”
The governor also put in a plug of sorts for those businesses that have been allowed to stay open to keep as many workers as they can out of the office.
The ultimate choice, Ducey said, is up to employers. But he suggested that they may find advantages in what has become the new normal of telecommuting.
“Many employers have seen that their employees can be just as productive at home as they were inside the office,” he said.
The governor said that, as a matter of policy, he continues to support the policy of “you’re safer at home, if you don’t have anywhere else to go, if you can work at home.”
And if companies believe they need people in the workplace?
“We do ask this idea of socially and physically distancing, the wearing the mask, all those fundamentals,” Ducey said. He also said a lot of it depends on the nature of the work being done and the environment.