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Gov. Doug Ducey and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman announced last week that while districts have to open up schools by Aug. 17, they do not have to provide in-class instruction. Instead, the schools can open up for students who need a place to go during the day but offer all online courses, as Tucson Unified School District announced it would do earlier this month.

Ducey agreed to Hoffman’s plan to use metrics regarding the spread of the virus to determine whether schools are safe to reopen. The Arizona Department of Health Services is working with education leaders to develop the standards before Aug. 7.

 Before she appeared with Ducey at a press conference on Thursday, July 23, Hoffman had proposed using metrics rather than a calendar date to determine whether schools could reopen safely. Her suggested metrics included a downward trajectory of confirmed new cases, a decrease in positivity rates in testing, and widespread availability of tests.

As of Inside Tucson Business’ print deadline, local school districts were planning a mix of “distance learning” online instruction and in-school instruction when school starts next month. Unlike in spring, when schools moved online following spring break, districts are planning stricter instructional time designed to mirror traditional in-person classes. 

By their very nature, schools are a petri dish for the spread of disease in a normal year. But with a highly infectious and deadly disease such as the novel coronavirus, there’s been much concern among teachers, administrators and parents that it’s simply not safe to begin the school year in the classroom without dramatic measures to protect students and staff.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said earlier this month that while states that have taken more aggressive steps earlier to slow the spread of the virus will be able to reopen, he can’t see the same thing happening in Arizona.

“We just have too much community spread,” Humble said.

Humble, who headed up the Arizona Department of Health Services in the administration of former Gov. Jan Brewer,  said there are two main factors to consider when opening schools in the fall: mitigation measures and the level of community spread within a school district.

“School districts have some really creative folks and I think they could put some effective mitigation measures in place that would make it safe to open schools if we didn’t have so much community spread,” Humble said. “Because we have the level of community spread that we have, I just don’t see that mitigation measures, which help but don’t eliminate transmission, are going to be adequate to make it a safe environment for teachers and schools and families.”

The state needs a much lower percentage of positive tests and much more hospital capacity before schools can safely reopen, Humble said.

“The decisions that were made or not made in May or June will impact what’s happening in August and September around schools,” Humble said.

A survey of teachers by Expect More Arizona, an education advocacy group, showed that two-thirds were concerned about the health and safety of staff and 62 percent were concerned about the health of students. Three-fourths of teachers said they wanted rules requiring teachers and students to stay home if they are sick and 71 percent said they wanted strict sanitation procedures and cleaning products in the classroom; 65 percent said they wanted clear protocols for staff, parents and children; and 60 percent wanted daily professional cleaning of classrooms.

While nearly half the teachers—47 percent—felt comfortable that they could help students get caught up academically, 41 percent expressed concerned about that challenge.

School district task forces have developed back-to-school plans based in part on Hoffman’s Roadmap for Reopening Schools, which is a guiding plan for how schools can operate safely amid COVID-19. It included suggestions for a Continuity of Operations Plan in case of emergency closures, health protocols in schools, communication procedures, technology priorities and more.

Hoffman and Ducey have announced an additional $370 million in funding for the schools.

The plan includes $200 million to help districts bolster their remote learning capacity, and protect against any budget shortfalls next year.

An additional $40 million will be put toward expanding broadband connectivity in rural communities, where students have no opportunity to access online instruction at home. Specifically, $28.6 million will be spent on broadband conduit and fiber on Interstate 17 from Sunset Point to Flagstaff, and is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. Similarly, broadband conduit and fiber will be installed along Interstate 19 from Tucson to Nogales.

Another $20 million will be disbursed through Acceleration Academy Grants intended for “high-need” schools. These dollars will bring in math and reading specialists, paraprofessionals and other types of support for students in need of extra help.

Eligibility for the grants will be based on “indicators of academic need and accessibility to resources developed in partnership with the Arizona Department of Education,” the release states.

Districts and charters can apply for the one-time funding to support their existing teaching staff through contracted services and training. Once selected, schools will be able to begin the contracts immediately.

Additional funding will go toward addressing the teacher shortage in Arizona.

Tucson Unified School District announced earlier this month it will launch online classes for all students starting Aug. 10, with teachers providing remote instruction via laptops.

 In order to avoid losing state funding, TUSD schools will open on Aug. 17 for any student who wants to attend class in person. However, students will be in “learning spaces” where they will do the same distance learning program that students who remain home will experience. Instead of teachers in the classroom, there will be monitors to keep an eye on the students who are in the room completing their studies on their computers.

 As part of the plan, all TUSD families will receive laptops. 

Other school districts are developing similar plans. For example, the Amphi School District voted earlier this month to offer two options for students: in-person instruction and Amphi Academy Online. But all students will start the school year remotely at Aug. 10, with in-person instruction beginning “when it is safe to do so,” according to the district’s web site. The website notes: “Based on COVID case rates and White House and Centers for Disease Control guidelines, it is unlikely they will open before Labor Day.”

However, with the state now mandating that Amphi will have to have some in-school accommodations for students by Aug. 17, Amphi may have to revise that plan.

Likewise, the Marana School District plans to start remote learning via online lessons on Aug. 5. The district plans to continue online lessons until Aug. 17 “or until the district can safely return to in-person instruction.”

MUSD plans to update its website as details develop.