Bright school stationery on old wooden table

Arizona schools will reopen late this summer, pretty much no matter what is going on with COVID-19, Gov. Doug Ducey said May 28.

And there could be summer school—and even the opening of schools that operate on a year-round basis—starting this month.

The governor and Cara Christ, his 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,’’ she said.

“They provide a lot more services than just education.’’

Still, she conceded, it is a bit of a balancing test.

“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.’’

That, she said, 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. That includes “flexibility’’ to provide alternatives to students—and faculty—who may themselves be at risk or have family members and finding ways to keep them safe “while we’re still meeting the needs of the children.’’

Anyway, she said, there are ways to reduce risks, ranging from more frequent disinfection of surfaces to not having students gather for assemblies and lunches.

Ducey defended the decision to make that announcement about August reopenings on May 28, even with the state 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 involves not just social distancing but also prohibits gatherings of more than 10 in any one place.

“We need parents and teachers and superintendents to be prepared,’’ he said of the announcement.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman on May 28 promised 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.

Public schools aside, the governor gave the go-ahead for summer camps to open as early as this coming week.

That, however, is for the moment going to be limited to day camps. And they will have to operate under guidelines to be issued by the state.

In a 41-page “road map’’ released June 1, Hoffman provided a series of options for local school board members to consider as they figure out what’s the best course of action going forward for 1.1 million youngsters in more than 2,000 school buildings.

Among the proposals worked out with education, community and health officials:

Physical distancing of children, including partitions between desks and limited seating on school buses.

Closing communal areas like dining halls and serving individually plated or home-packed meals, using disposable utensils and dishes.

Encouraging staff and students to stay home when sick and eliminating “perfect attendance’’ awards.

Screening students for symptoms, which may include temperature checks.

Staging staggered times for parents to drop off and pick up their children.

Creating small class sizes “when possible.”

And when physical distancing does not work, the plan says schools should consider other strategies to limit the spread of disease, including cloth face masks, hand washing and sanitizing surfaces.

Still, the bottom line comes down to whether, even implementing all these strategies, it’s possible to keep students and staff safe. And that problem can be multiplied in younger age groups where it may be unrealistic to try to keep kids apart, which is why, even in the best of circumstances, children come home from school with head lice.

“I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge that this is about decreasing risk,’’ Hoffman said.

“But in our school settings ... it’s almost impossible to completely eliminate the risk,’’ she said. “A school is a place where people congregate, where kids come together and adults come together, so there’s always going to be some level of risk.’’

Hoffman said the report includes various recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like the issue of distancing and wearing masks.

“But we also recognize and are realistic that may not be feasible for every school community,’’ she continued. “If these mitigation strategies are not feasible, then one of the considerations would be to not open and to provide more distance learning or have more online options.’’ 

And the road map does say that is an option. One other is a “hybrid’’ program where students spend only part of the week in a school building. Only thing is, she said, the formula for state aid currently does not recognize this as an option.

Hoffman emphasized that none of the proposals or suggestions are mandates.

“This is not a one-size-fits-all,’’ Hoffman said. 

“This is meant to be flexible and adaptable to help our school leaders think through all different types of scenarios and work within their own communities to create plans that are best for their unique needs.’’

Some of that, Hoffman said, is likely to be based on the rate of infection, with some communities having above-average spread of COVID-19 than others.

All of this—whether more teachers, more classroom space, more computers for online learning, or even disinfecting solutions—involves money, even as the state is looking at a deficit for the coming fiscal year that could hit $1.6 billion.