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Arizona releases guidelines for how to safely reopen public schools

PHOENIX — The Arizona Department of Education on Monday released guidance for public schools on how to safely reopen after the coronavirus pandemic caused them to close in mid-March.

The guidelines, titled “Roadmap for Reopening Schools,” were put together by a task force that included teachers, principals, school nurses, superintendents and charter school leaders.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman told KTAR News 92.3 FM that this is not a state mandate, and school leaders will ultimately decide what’s best for them.

“We know that there’s not a one-size fits all model for all of our schools across the state,” she said. “So this is meant to be flexible, adaptable, and we kept talking about that as we put the plan together.”

The document gives parents a first glimpse of how schools might change their operations during the new academic year to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

It does not indicate how or if schools will be provided funding to pay for additional resources they’ll need, such as cleaning materials.

Hoffman told KTAR News there are several ways to address those costs, including using federal COVID-19 relief dollars.

“We’re still in the process of allocating that,” she said. “Arizona, for our K-12 system, will be receiving about $277 million dollars and schools can also use that money for those types of expenditures. They can also use it for things like technology, computers, devices, things like that.”

Following many of the same guidelines for schools to reopen that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released, the Arizona document recommends that older students and staff wear face masks, especially when physical distancing is difficult.

It also states face masks should not be placed on particular students, including those with certain disabilities or health conditions.

Students and staff should stay home if they test positive for COVID-19 or if they’re experiencing symptoms. Families should be encouraged to self-report symptoms and school staff should visually check for symptoms, including doing temperature checks.

In order to encourage social distancing, desks should be 6 feet apart and face the same direction. If students are sitting on a table, they should sit on only one side and be spaced out.

Schools should reduce class sizes to allow more physical space between students, which may be difficult to do given Arizona has some of the largest class sizes in the country. They should also place tape on the floors or sidewalks and create “one way routes” in the hallways to remind students to stay 6 feet apart.

In areas where physical distancing isn’t possible, the document states barriers, such as sneeze guards and partitions, should be installed.

The document also states students should be able to eat meals in classrooms instead of cafeterias. Students can still use playgrounds, as long as they do so in small groups and the playground equipment is disinfected between use.

On school buses, only one student can sit per row, and rows should be skipped if possible. Buses should also be cleaned daily or between use.

The document also states schools should provide adequate hygiene supplies, such as soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels and disinfectant wipes. They should also clean and disinfected frequently touched surfaces, such as door handles and drinking fountains.

While Gov. Doug Ducey has expressed confidence that schools will be able to reopen safely for the next academic year, the education department guidance recommends schools come up with a plan for “the possibility of future short-notice school closures.”

In addition, it states schools “will need to plan flexible instructional models that provide for groups of students to learn remotely while also remaining connected to their school, teachers, and friends.”

“Remote learning should carry the expectation of providing commensurate learning outcomes for students whose peers attend in person at school,” the document adds.

Schools should also offer options for staff and students who are at higher risk for several illness from the coronavirus.

To help schools come up with a plan to reopen, the document includes four possible scenarios. They include having all students attend school in-person or a hybrid system that includes some students attending in-person while some attending virtually.

If schools choose to do online learning, which many did to finish out this past school year, they should “to the extent possible” provide computing devices and connectivity to students who need it. That could include deploying school buses equipped with WiFi capabilities.

“Some schools are also looking into having different types of scheduling where kids might come in certain days of the week and have a rotating schedule,” Hoffman said.

“Again, I think the magic word here is being innovative, being flexible, being adaptable,” she added. “But we wanted to at least provide some recommendations of different things that schools can be thinking about as they move forward.”

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