By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Arizona schools won't be required to put kids back into classrooms next month.
But they will be required to make some sort of on-site learning available for parents who want it.
On Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools chief Kathy Hoffman abandoned what had been an Aug. 17 "aspirational'' date to begin offering in-classroom education. And they did not replace it with any new target.
"It's not reasonable to set a date,'' Hoffman said. In fact, she said she doubts that any school would be ready to actually begin classroom instruction by that original target date.
Instead, the new executive order signed by the governor directs school boards and charter school operators to begin some sort of operations -- even if just online -- on what would have been their regular start date.
In the meantime, the Department of Health Services is supposed to come up with "public health benchmarks'' by Aug. 7 school officials will be required to consider when determining whether to open classrooms. But it will remain up to each entity to determine when they are ready for in-person learning.
That can mean continuing with online and remote instruction for as long as the school officials believe is necessary.
But requirements remain.
The biggest is that these districts must provide somewhere for students to go.
These could be youngsters whose parents work as well as students who do not have access to computers at home. And the governor has a particular focus on "at risk'' children from low-income households, special education students and those who go to school with limited English proficiency.
There are other conditions, including requirements for "social distancing'' and for all adults and most students to wear masks.
But there's also a carrot with all this: a 5 percent boost in state aid.
Under normal circumstances, the state pays only 95 percent of normal aid for students who are being taught only online. That means only about $5,000 per student versus $5,300, the average figure for traditional public schools.
This plan erases that gap.
But it also would provide an identical bonus to qualifying school districts who agree to actually put youngsters into seats. They will get 105 percent of state aid, or an extra $265.
Aides to the governor pegged the cost to the state at about $370 million if all school districts meet the qualifications. Those dollars would come from the state's share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The decision to allow schools to operate online indefinitely comes against the backdrop of a push by President Trump to force schools to start in-classroom teaching. Ducey said that sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing.
"I think that having a kid in a classroom is a great thing,'' he said. What this policy does, the governor said, is leave the decisions to local elected officials and, ultimately, to parents who may decide that, even in places where schools are open, that's not the right choice.
"In this situation, somebody that's got an underlying health condition or weakened immunity, we would never force them to do something that would be against their safety,'' Ducey said. "And we would want to provide options for them.''
There's something else, though.
State Health Director Cara Christ said that having hundreds of thousands of children who have been sheltering at home now for months suddenly put back into classrooms is likely to result in an increase in COVID-19 cases. But she said that's not as alarming as it might seem -- at least for children in lower grades.
"What the data is currently showing is that kids under 10 don't transmit COVID as effectively as adults do,'' Christ said. "But we will continue to monitor and there will be benchmarks that we will look at to determine if it does look like it's increasing.''
And the option remains with school officials who have opened up for in-classroom instruction to drop that and go back to online and remote learning.
The governor's other big announcement is that Arizonans will not be going back to bars, gyms, fitness centers, water parks, tubing and movie theaters on Monday.
That is the day the governor's latest closure order on these businesses was set to expire. Instead, Ducey is extending it indefinitely, with a promise to review the situation every two weeks.
The move comes as there are indications that the rate of infection in Arizona is beginning to decrease.
But the situation still remains critical. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention saying in its latest report that Arizona remains "in the red zone for cases.''
That means there were more than 100 new cases for every 100,000 residents last week and the percent of tests coming back positive remains above 10 percent. And what that also means, the CDC said, is the state should keep bars and gyms closed in "hot spot'' counties, which is most of the state.
Ducey cited that CDC report in justifying his decision to keep these businesses shuttered. He said that makes moves like this "guided by public health and not politics or what's popular.''
But that same CDC report also said that restaurants in Arizona should be limited to no more than 25 percent of capacity for indoor dining and that crowd size should be limited to 10. Ducey, however, said he does not plan to follow those recommendations, keeping restaurants at 50 percent and crowds to no more than 50.
The governor said he saw no need to implement those, saying if things take a turn for the worse "we have options if we need to change.''
While Ducey said Arizona appears to have a downward trend in COVID-19 cases, there is one big caveat: A delay in reporting test results.
Christ said the average turnaround is 5.2 days, at least for the labs that report electronically to her agency. But she said there are those that are taking more than a week.
That not only affects the numbers being reported. Christ said it also complicates efforts to get a handle on the spread.
"We want to be able to connect with the people,'' she said.
"We want to give them instruction on how to prevent transmitting COVID-19 to others,'' Christ continued. "And we want to get in touch with their contacts so we can break that transmission chain.''