Arizona schools chief released reopening guidelines

PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona's top school official released guidelines on Monday for reopening the state's K-12 schools that includes detailed suggestions on how the districts can decide whether to start traditional classes after summer break or switch to partly or fully digital learning models.

But the document released by Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman leaves it up to districts to make those choices, saying school boards should rely on guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the coronavirus pandemic.

The 36-page document comes just days after Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said he was allowing schools to reopen in August. Ducey promised that Hoffman would provide detailed guidelines for schools as they prepare to open again to all 1.1 million Arizona public schoolchildren.

Hoffman said she worked with state health department officials and educators to come up with the “Roadmap for Reopening Schools.”

“It provides a series of recommendations for how schools can approach the 2020-2021 school year and offers adaptable considerations to meet each community’s unique needs,” Hoffman wrote. “Given the fluidity of the public health situation, this will be a living document that will be updated based on the most current information.”

She laid out best practices in limiting the spread of the virus, including recommendations on cleaning, limiting large groups, possibly wearing masks and many other details.

School districts weren't waiting, with most already deep into the planning process for reopening schools that shut down in March.

The Alhambra Elementary School District in west Phoenix was among the first to close. Superintendent Mark Yslas announced on March 12 that students wouldn't return from Spring Break as planned on the 16th even though there had only reported nine coronavirus cases at that point. The governor didn't order a statewide closure until March 15.

As a school leader responsible for 14 schools and about 12,000 students, Yslas said he just didn't have a plan to deal with the virus.

“I said I’m not closing because I know what to do," Yslas said Friday. "I’m closing because as a leader I don’t know how to keep my kids and my families and staff healthy."

In the past several weeks, the district has been planning for reopening. They've gone to a fall school calendar that will allow options for scaling back in-person classes, and are considering limiting the number of students on buses. The district is even planning to teach parents how to handle their students after school. That involves telling them to have their child shower and change clothes immediately after coming home from school, before interacting with other family members.

“Because we have a sense of responsibility to also keep our families as safe as possible,” he said.

At the Kyrene School District, which covers portions of south Phoenix and parts of Tempe, Chandler, Guadalupe and the Gila River Indian Reservation, Superintendent Jan Vesely is planning a full reopening with distance learning options for students whose parents aren't comfortable with sending them back to school.

"We are absolutely ready to reopen," Vesely said Monday.

She said the new state guidelines track closely with those from the CDC and the district is close to finalizing a detailed reopening plan. The district will focus on health and safety and on providing choices for parents.

“There will be remote and online learning as well as in-person options,” she said.

Kyrene, which has 25 schools teaching about 16,500 students, also closed before Ducey issued his statewide order. Vesely said she acted because parents who were physicians and advising her became increasingly concerned.

“They were talking to me and telling me that they felt a school closure was inevitable,” she said. “When I noticed they started pulling their children out, I felt like they were doing that because it was in the best interests of their children, and I felt like it was in the best interests of our community.”

Schools are receiving extra federal cash to help pay for more staff and cleaning and other costs of dealing with the coronavirus. But Pedro Lopez, a parent and board member at the Cartwright Elementary School District in the west Phoenix community of Maryvale, said more is needed and called on the governor to provide it.

“Definitely the (federal) money we received will be put to use to get us through,” Lopez said. “The question is whether he is willing to support us going back to school in August with money.”