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Arizona public schools chief did not request school benchmark changes

PHOENIX – Arizona’s top schools official said the Arizona Department of Health Services did not consult the Arizona Department of Education when shifting the recommended schools benchmark guidelines.

AZDHS Director Dr. Cara Christ and Gov. Doug Ducey both said in a press conference Thursday that they’d worked with closely with Arizona education leaders to determine the new guidelines, but Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said that wasn’t the case.

“We have generally had very strong collaboration and communication with the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Governor’s Office, but unfortunately in this situation, on behalf of the Arizona Department of Education, we did not recommend or request and were not consulted on whether changes were needed to the benchmarks,” Hoffman told KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Gaydos & Chad on Thursday.

Hoffman said in the past, the Department of Education had worked closely with AZDHS and the Governor’s Office, so the breakdown in communication was disappointing. She also noted that it’s critical to have clear guidelines so schools can accurately make decisions about in-person or virtual learning.

AZDHS responded in an email late Thursday night claiming representatives from both departments participated in meetings of the school opening taskforce and school reopening workgroup, saying notes of the meetings reflect coordination between the two departments.

Hoffman and Christ in a joint statement on Friday afternoon explained the confusion.

“Unfortunately, there was a communications breakdown between the agencies that left the public confused and uninformed,” the statement read.

“Yesterday, the Department of Health Services made clarifications to help clear this up. The important part is that these benchmarks provide schools with data-driven metrics, while schools maintain the ultimate authority to make decisions that are best for their communities.

“Our goal is to move forward, together. It’s important for Arizona kids and families, and we look forward to continued collaboration during this pandemic and beyond.”

The recommended school benchmarks were quietly changed by AZDHS last week to help schools decide which mode of learning should be conducted based on rising coronavirus metrics.

The new guidelines urge school districts transition from hybrid to virtual learning if all three benchmarks move to the substantial spread category for two weeks. Previously, schools were urged to shift if only one of the benchmarks was in the most severe category for two weeks.

Now, they’re asked to prepare to make this shift.

AZDHS’ schools dashboard was designed to provide guidance, but districts have the final say in the type of instruction they offer.

The state health department clarified the updated guidelines on Thursday, saying that with guidance from local health department, schools can shift if only one of the benchmarks remains in the red category and reaffirmed the schools are driving the decisions.

“I do strongly believe that if any of the metrics are in the red, the school leaders should immediately be in touch with the county health departments to make a determination for that particular school and that district about the safety of proceeding with in-person or hybrid instruction,” Hoffman said.

This conversation with the county health departments can also be triggered by schools reporting positive cases. In Maricopa County, 40 schools have reported outbreaks of coronavirus cases, according to the department’s dashboard.

An outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed coronavirus cases who were in contact with one another but not from the same household. The outbreak is officially closed when a school goes 28 days without a new case.

Hoffman said that clarification is needed in order to provide schools with accurate guidelines so schools aren’t faced with repetitively opening and closing schools as guidance changes.

She also noted that educators want to keep the schools, but it needs to be done safely and the community has to do their part by practicing mitigation efforts to keep in-person learning going.

“Without the community effort of preventing the spread and mitigating the spread of COVID-19, then we will be in a situation like we were back in the spring where we’re going to see widespread closures and more distance learning, which we are seeing across the country,” Hoffman said.

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