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Closing Schools Not An Option

Gov. Doug Ducey hosts a panel of Republicans at the Republican Governor’s Association conference November 18, 2021, at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix. (Photo by Nick Phillips/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey is doubling down in his fight with public schools over their virus policies, offering cash to parents to send their kids to private or parochial schools if a school – or even a classroom – has to shut down for even one day due to an outbreak of Covid. 

In what his office describes as “preemptive action,” Ducey announced Tuesday his Open for Learning Recovery Benefit program to provide up to $7,000 for parents who face “financial and educational barriers due to unexpected school closures.” It can be used for things like child care and online tutoring. 

But the cash, taken from federal COVID-relief programs, also can be used for tuition so parents can send their youngster to a private school, covering what gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin said are “any charges from the school: tuition, books, uniforms if required.” 

The new $10 million program is a variant of one announced by Ducey last year to give what amounted to $7,000 vouchers for private schools to parents who want to pull their child out of a school solely because it has a mask mandate. Ducey also divided up $163 million in federal aid that is under his control to schools — but only to districts that do not require students and staff to wear face coverings. 

Both of those already have drawn threats from the U.S. Treasury to take back the money which federal officials said were designed to finance “evidence-based efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19.” But so far there has been no action against the state. 

Karamargin said the idea of this new program is not necessarily to give out more money. 

“It’s that parents have options,” he said. But there is a message there. “That the closing of schools should not be an option,” he said. 

And Karamargin acknowledged that the audience for the new order is not just parents but school districts who get state aid based on the number of students enrolled. 

The move comes as the state and the nation continue to see a spike in Covid infections, driven in part by the highly transmissible Omicron variant. An additional 7,212 cases and 154 deaths were reported Tuesday; the death toll is now 24,509. 

Data from The New York Times shows that, in the past seven days, only four states have a higher COVID death rate on a per-capita basis: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. 

Chris Kotterman, lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said his association agrees with Ducey’s basic premise. 

“We want to keep schools open,” he said. “But the governor keeps on playing both side of the fence.” 

On one hand, Kotterman said, there’s the message to keep schools open. But then the governor tells schools that they can’t do the things designed to protect the health of students and teachers like mask mandates. 

“In our opinion, it’s to placate a political base,” he said. 

“It doesn’t do anything to help the problem,” Kotterman continued. “But it does further politicize the issue.” 

Will Humble

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said there will definitely be classroom or school closures periodically early in the spring semester, mostly because of teachers being out with breakthrough cases. 

“And, of course, there are not enough substitutes to handles what’s coming in terms of teacher absences,” Humble said. “So this might help some families.”  

But the former state health director said that this really doesn’t address the problem.  

“This order fits perfectly with Ducey’s modus operandi: focus on a cosmetic response while being actively hostile to core proven measures to prevent classroom or school closures,” Humble said. He also agreed with Kotterman that this is more about politics. Humble said that Ducey — who actually ordered face coverings for those in school in 2020 — won’t impose things like that now to keep kids safe in school “because it would hurt his chances of still being somebody in 362 days” when his term as governor is up. 

Karamargin said the state will post an online application form this coming week for parents to use when a school is shuttered due to COVID.  

Eligibility, like Ducey’s earlier program for grants due to mask mandates, is limited to families making no more than 350% of the federal poverty level. That is $76,860 for a family of three and $92,750 for a family of four, with progressively higher amounts for larger families. 

Karamargin said that applications will be processed promptly to ensure that families spending money on anything from child care to private school tuition get reimbursed in a timely manner. But they will need to spend the money up front, as parents will need to provide receipts. 

The governor appears to be angling to avoid a similar threat of loss of federal funds for his latest action, saying he is in step even with President Biden. 

As recently as Tuesday, Biden said he is committed to keeping schools open even despite the latest surge in virus cases. 

“We know that our kids can be safe when in school,” the president said. “That’s why I believe that schools should remain open.” 

Biden pointed out that Congress has previously approved funding “to keep our students safe and schools open.” 

“That money went to states,” he said. “I encourage the states and school districts to use the funding you still have to protect your children and keep the schools open.” 

But some of the dollars that Arizona was given were in that $163 million Ducey divided up last year — and withheld from schools with mask mandates. 

Karamargin said the other part of Ducey’s last plan — the one to give $7,000 vouchers to parents of kids hit with mask mandates in public schools — generated interest from 85 families, with the state giving out $595,000 so the youngsters could transfer, at public expense, to private or parochial schools. 

He said that program, which also was funded at $10 million, remains available to parents as several Arizona schools announced plans to impose new mask mandates due to the Omicron outbreak. 

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