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Some Arizona schools plan to open, disregarding benchmarks, Hoffman

(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Multiple Arizona schools have announced plans to open up classrooms next week, disregarding health guidelines and the wishes of the state’s top education official.

Administrators in two southeast Valley public districts — Queen Creek Unified and J.O. Combs Unified – and the 12-campus American Leadership Academy charter school system have decided to begin on-campus learning Monday, the first day allowed under state requirements.

However, no counties in the state have met the health department’s recommended COVID-19 benchmarks for safely reopening schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman on Wednesday urged all schools to adhere to the benchmarks, although they were created as guidance for districts, which have the final say in the matter, not mandates.

“Not following them is a disservice to the educators who continue providing instruction via distance learning & families who are supporting distance learning,” Hoffman said in a series of tweets.

“We are all making sacrifices for the health and safety of our school communities. If we work together, meeting the metrics for returning to in-person instruction is achievable. I urge every Arizonan to do their part in slowing the spread of #COVID19.”

K-12 district and charter schools across the state started the fall semester with online-only classes, as mandated by Gov. Doug Ducey’s June 29 order. The order said classrooms couldn’t open before Aug. 17.

Another order issued July 23 required the Arizona Department of Health Services to create metrics to guide districts on when they could safely resume traditional in-person schooling for the first time since the spring semester was cut short in mid-March.

The guidance plan was released last Thursday, along with an online data dashboard showing that no counties met the three recommended benchmarks.

The Queen Creek Unified board voted Tuesday night to open for families ready to send their kids to school while continuing to offer the remote learning option.

“We’ve studied this. We really, truly want what’s best for the students, and that has been our focus,” Queen Creek Unified Governing Board President Ken Brague said during Tuesday night’s meeting.

Bill Schultz was the only Queen Creek board member to vote against reopening Monday.

“I believe in the metrics,” Schultz said. “I know that the metrics are moving in the right direction. I think we should move in the direction of in-person, but I don’t think we should go 100%.

“I think we should slowly walk into this in case there is a surge.”

Queen Creek Unified and most of the American Leadership Academy schools are in Maricopa County, which has met one benchmark and was on pace to meet a second this week.

J.O. Combs Unified, which made its decision Monday, is located next to Queen Creek but in Pinal County, which is in the same situation as Maricopa regarding the metrics.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Griselda Zetino contributed to this report.

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