The superintendent of the Vail Unified School District said he’s not looking to state officials to set a specific date for getting kids back at their desks.
What John Carruth does want is a specific metric that will allow him to be able to tell parents and teachers that it is again safe to go back into the classroom. Anything else, he told Capitol Media Services, is arbitrary.
More to the point, Carruth said, is that guidance needs to come from the people who are in the best position to provide it.
“We are really good educators,” he said. “We are not public health officials.”
The issue – and the challenge – arose as Carruth and other education officials met online July 15 with Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman. Hoffman said they spent most of the time listening to their concerns.
“And they will inform our decision-making going forward,” Hoffman said.
Carruth said the goal is clear.
“No one feels stronger about the need to bring students back to school in person,” he said. But Carruth said the ability to do that depends on building community “will” to make that happen.
“Right now I think there’s confusion, I think there’s frustration and I think people are scared,” he said.
Complicating that, Carruth said, are what appear to be polar opposites of the view of the pandemic and the current situation in Arizona. Some see it as “extremely bad,” though it’s not always clear what that is, while others see the situation as “just fine” and not impacting them.
There are a host of statistics being tossed around, ranging from positive test results and hospital bed usage to death rates and projections of infection. And, of course, there’s the question of whether someone has been personally affected or has a family member who has the virus.
All that, said Carruth, means there are no common conclusions.
“If we had a clear target, even if it wasn’t the perfect one, I think we could help the governor around (the issue of) shared sacrifice to get people to do the action steps necessary to reduce the spread and make it acceptable in Arizona to have kids back at school,” he said.
And there’s something else. Carruth said that educators understand rating systems as they have been used in the past to grade schools.
“We need that same kind of target for public health,” he said. “And I can communicate that to my community, I can communicate that to our staff.”
Carruth said he will leave it to experts to design such a standard.
But he acknowledged he happens to like a system crafted by the Harvard Global Health Initiative, saying it does real “apples-to-apples comparisons” among not just states but other countries. Carruth said it appears to have been designed to create exactly the kind of metrics that allow public officials to make policy decisions.
So far, though, Ducey has not set a specific standard.
Instead, he has said that in-class teaching cannot resume until at least August 17, though schools are free to begin online instruction before then. Even at that, Ducey has described that target date as “aspirational.”
“I understand the governor’s reluctance to put a stake in the ground around a metric because things change so rapidly,” Carruth said. But he said the alternative of simply setting a date to open schools is no better – and potentially worse.
“If we move the start date for learning back, the date is arbitrary,” he said, especially without some specific metrics to determine whether that date makes sense.
Carruth compared it to saying today that he intends to visit Mount Lemmon two weeks from now.
Only thing is, there’s has been a fire burning up there and forest officials have declared the area generally off limits as they worry about flooding and debris flow.
So making a hard-and-fast commitment at this point, Carruth said, makes no sense. What would make sense is saying he will go when certain conditions are met.
The same is true, he said, of COVID-19, saying it’s the same kind of natural disaster that requires the same kind of understanding – “What it means when there’s relative containment and how we can move forward and make policy decisions on that.”
In a prepared statement after the meeting this week, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said the governor and Hoffman are working with and listening to – the education community on how and when to safely reopen schools.