Declaring it’s now safe, Gov. Doug Ducey is ordering all schools to return to in-person and teacher-led instruction right after spring break or by March 15.
In an executive order March 4, the governor said that standards developed by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control show that 12 of the state’s 15 counties have sufficiently curbed Covid to the point where it is safe. That includes the state’s two largest counties.
“Arizona’s students need to be back in the classroom,” Ducey said in a prepared statement. And he said that more than half the state’s schools are agreeable to offering at least an in-person option.
“More schools need to follow their lead and pave the way for equitable education options for every Arizona student,” he said.
There is an opt out of sorts.
Ducey’s order spells out that schools must notify parents “within a reasonable time period” that in-person instruction will resume. But it does require them to continue to offer virtual instruction for students “upon request from a parent or guardian.”
Ducey said the threat of spread has been reduced because teachers have been given priority for getting vaccinated.
“Many have already received their second dose,” he said. “The science is clear: It’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap.”
The order does have other exceptions.
In counties where the transmission rate is still listed as “high” – meaning Pinal, Yavapai and Coconino – there is no mandate for in-person instruction for middle and high schools.
But the governor said that should not be taken as a license to simply continue with online instruction. And his order says that schools in those counties that already are open “shall remain open and strictly implement mitigation strategies.”
“CDC is clear that there is a safe pathway if they implement proper mitigation strategies,” he said.
But questions remain.
“How is he going to enforce this?” asked Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association. “How does that change the autonomy and the authority of the governing board?”
State law gives a governor who declares a health emergency broad powers to take action to curb disease.
But this order does nothing of that sort. And there appears to be nothing in the statutes granting Ducey special powers during an emergency he has declared – and which remains in effect – to let him tell the more than 200 locally elected school boards to alter their plans for reopening.
The order drew a surprised reaction from Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association.
“It’s hard to be told you’re going to do this with 12 days’ notice and no advance warning,” he said.
“He did not engage in a broader stakeholder process to let us know what his thinking was because, after all, we’re the ones that have to implement this,” Kotterman said. “And now our members are going to be faced with questions from the public they don’t have the answers to because they all found out at the same time.”
He said Ducey should have reached out broadly to those in the education community before issuing an order. And Kotterman said the unilateral order ignores local wishes.
“There are communities that are in general agreement that they don’t necessarily want their schools to be open,” he said.
Thomas said there’s another flaw in this top-down approach – and, in particular, the mandate to reopen immediately following spring break.
He said some schools that actually have been open are looking at stepping back from total in-person instruction to hybrid in the week following spring break.
“They were assuming there were a lot of families that were going to travel,” Thomas said, increasing the risk of students getting exposed while on break and then coming back to school, unaware they may be carrying the virus.
Thomas also said that when schools were first closed last spring they essentially were told to come up with their own plans for how best to manage during the virus.
“All of the decision-making had been going on at the local level,” he said.
“And to now, today, have the governor step back into that space and say ‘regardless of all the good work and the conversations that have gone on and everything that you’ve accomplished, we’re all going to be on the same page in like three weeks,’ we are scratching our heads,” Thomas said “We don’t understand what has fundamentally changed.”
It wasn’t just school board members and teachers who were left out of the process.
Kathy Hoffman, the state superintendent of public instruction, also learned about the order just as it was being issued. And she, too, has questions.
“The timing of this announcement will make it challenging for some schools that had already made plans to return to in-person instruction on a different schedule due to their local community circumstances,” Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “To achieve stability for our school communities, it’s necessary to provide them with adequate time to inform and ready their staff, students and families.
Ducey, for his part, is relying heavily on updated guidance by the CDC which says “there is evidence to suggest that K-12 in-person school attendance is not a primary driver of community transmission.”
Beyond that, the governor noted the CDC says that schools can safely provide in-person instruction “through strict adherence to mitigation strategies.” That includes masks, physical distancing, hand washing and respiratory etiquette.
While Ducey did not first reach out to educators, he already had lined up the backing of the Republican legislators who chair the education committees at the Legislature, including their prepared comments in his press release.
“The data is clear – kids can go back to school,” said Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, who chairs the House panel. And Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said the guidance “will help ensure families that are ready to send their kids back can do so.”
The order does have an escape valve. It says that individual district or charter schools may close – but only if the local health department advises closing the entire school to a significant outbreak of the virus “that poses a risk to students or staff.”
Even in those cases, though, that closure also has to be approved by the Arizona Department of Health Services. And the schools must continue to offer on-site support services for students who need it during the closure.
The order actually creates three categories of schools and what they are required to do.
In any county with low or moderate transmission, it says schools will be open with both in-person and virtual instruction options. At the moment, though, only Yuma County qualified.
Eleven counties are in the category of having “substantial” risk of transmission. They have the same requirement, but with a note saying that middle and high schools “may reduce attendance to reduce transmission and increase physical distancing.”
That leaves the three counties with high risk of transmission. There, middle and high schools that have not already reopened can continue with virtual instruction, though that is not required.
Editor’s note: This story has been revised from its original version to include more information.