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Arizona’s health and education leaders clarify school benchmark confusion

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX — Arizona’s top schools official and health official cleared the air in a joint statement Friday.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ and Gov. Doug Ducey in a press conference Thursday said they’d worked closely with Arizona education leaders to determine the new school benchmark guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic, a statement Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman denied.

“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, adding it was disappointing since the Department of Education had worked closely with AZDHS and the Governor’s Office in the past.

Christ and Hoffman said in the statement they have enjoyed a “strong partnership” in sharing a commitment to keep Arizona kids healthy and safe during COVID-19, but a communication breakdown occurred when benchmark guidelines were quietly updated last week.

“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.”

AZDHS in an email late Thursday night claimed 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 the joint statement said it’s their goal to move forward, together.

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

Under the new guidelines, school districts are urged to transition from hybrid to virtual learning if all three benchmarks move to the substantial spread category for two weeks.

The clarified updated guidelines said schools can shift with guidance from local health departments if only one of the benchmarks remains in the red category.

Prior guidelines advised schools to move to virtual learning if only one of the benchmarks was in the most severe category for two weeks.

However, the two in the joint statement said it is important to remember the decision to transition to virtual learning is the school’s to make.

“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.”

Hoffman on Thursday said she strongly believes school leaders should immediately be in touch with the county health departments if any of the metrics are in the red to make a determination about the safety of proceeding with in-person or hybrid instruction.

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