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COVID-19 Coverage

Top Arizona Education Official Speaks on Reopening Schools

Capitol Media Services 2019 file photo by Howard Fischer
Arizona state schools chief Kathy Hoffman

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- The state's top education official wants schools to plan for reopening even as she concedes she doesn't know how much money they will have -- and that it's virtually impossible to guarantee a risk-free environment.

In a 41-page "roadmap'' released Monday, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman provided a series of options for local school board members to consider as they figure out what's the best course of action going forward for 1.1 million youngsters in more than 2,000 school buildings.
Among the proposals worked out with education, community and health officials:
- Physical distancing of children, including partitions between desks and limited seating on school buses;
- Closing communal areas like dining halls and serving individually plated or home-packed meals, using disposable utensils and dishes;
- Encouraging staff and students to stay home when sick and eliminating "perfect attendance'' awards;
- Screening students for symptoms, which may include temperature checks;
- Staging staggered times for parents to drop off and pick up their children;
- Creating small class sizes "when possible'';
And when physical distancing does not work, the plan says schools should consider other strategies to limit the spread of disease including cloth face masks, hand washing and sanitizing surfaces.
Still, the bottom line comes down to whether, even implementing all these strategies, it's possible to keep students and staff safe. And that problem can be multiplied in younger age groups where it may be unrealistic to try to keep kids apart, which is why, even in the best of circumstances, children come home from school with head lice.
"I think it's important for all of us to acknowledge that this is about decreasing risk,'' Hoffman said.
"But in our school settings ... it's almost impossible to completely eliminate the risk,'' she said. "A school is a place where people congregate, where kids come together and adults come together, so there's always going to be some level of risk.''
Hoffman said the report includes various recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like the issue of distancing and wearing masks.
"But we also recognize and are realistic that that may not be feasible for every school community,'' she continued. "If these mitigation strategies are not feasible, then one of the considerations would be to not open and to provide more distance learning or have more online options.''
And the roadmap does say that is an option.
One other is a "hybrid'' program where students spend only part of the week in a school building. Only thing is, she said, is the formula for state aid currently does not recognize this as an option.
Hoffman emphasized that none of the proposals or suggestions are mandates.
"This is not a one-size-fits all,'' Hoffman said. "This is meant to be flexible and adaptable to help our school leaders think through all different types of scenarios and work within their own communities to create plans that are best for their unique needs.''
Some of that, Hoffman said, is likely to be based on the rate of infection, with some communities having above-average spread of COVID-19 than others.
All of this -- whether more teachers, more classroom space, more computers for online learning, or even disinfecting solutions -- involves money, even as the state is looking at a deficit for the coming fiscal year that could hit $1.6 billion.
The good news, Hoffman said, is that Arizona has about $1 billion in its "rainy-day fund.'' And the schools chief said that, unlike other states, there is no realistic talk about actually reducing state aid to schools.
As to those additional costs, Hoffman said the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs is reimbursing schools for things like dividers and personal protective equipment. She also noted schools are getting allocations through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
But there's something else.
State aid -- the largest share of school dollars -- is tied to attendance. If parents opt to send their children to online schools, the money follows them.
That's not the only problem. Hoffman said there's also the economic fallout from the pandemic, citing her conversations with Fernando Parra, superintendent of the Nogales Unified School District.
"They've already seen a high number of their families moving back to Mexico or moving elsewhere to seek employment opportunities,'' she said.
Hoffman wants lawmakers to enact measures to protect schools against a sudden and huge loss of state aid which is tied directly to attendance. She specifically is seeking to limit year-over-year reductions to no more than 2 percent to enable schools to budget now even though they have no idea of how many students actually will show up.
"I've been urging on legislators and Gov. Ducey and his team to continue to collaborate with us on making any legislative changes that are needed in the near future,'' she said.
It's not just money.
Hoffman acknowledged that when students return there will be a lot of questions about what, if anything, they learned during the months that they were supposed to be continuing their education at home.
She said that occurs at the beginning of every school year as teachers evaluate what those in their classroom know. Now, Hoffman said, there will need to be a much quicker evaluation "so that it's usable immediately by the teachers, by the staff to identify which kids are needing the most support and perhaps need smaller groups ... and kids that need the most help.''
Hoffman also said that schools may want to experiment with the idea that grade levels are arbitrary.
"There may be kids that, during this time, have jumped ahead a grade level and maybe students who are working and need a lot more review from this past academic year that have really missed a lot,'' she said.
Hoffman acknowledged the results of a recent survey showing that 18 percent of parents with school-age kids are not willing to send them off each morning. The schools chief said she believes some of that can be addressed with more information.
"I would encourage them to be as involved as possible and for our schools to be over-communicating with the families on what types of policies and procedures they are putting into place to make schools as safe as possible,'' she said.
Anyway, Hoffman said she sees that 18 percent as a snapshot of current attitudes, counting on things changing in the coming months -- up or down -- depending on the spread of the virus. And she said she presumes that most students who don't return to classrooms will get educated through various online options.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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