PHOENIX — Arizona public schools will be closed for at least the next two weeks.
In an announcement Sunday, Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools chief Kathy Hoffman said they do not want schools to open on Monday. The closure will run through at least Friday, March 27, with the pair promising to reassess the need beyond that.
In an open letter to families and educators, the pair emphasized that the closure will address only “operational issues.”
“Doing this will not stop the spread of COVID-19,” they said.
“The safest place for children during this time is at home,” the governor and schools chief continued. “They should not be cared for by elderly adults or those with underlying health conditions, including grandparents and other family members.”
Benson and St. David school district superintendents provided the following information regarding the statewide closure of schools caused by the ever changing COVID-19, or coronavirus, situation.
When contacted for an update about the COVID-19 impact to Benson Unified School District, Superintendent Micah Mortensen said the district is working with state and local agencies at all levels in an attempt to find updates and answers to keep the community informed.
“As school leaders, administrators are used to having answers and solving problems,” Mortensen said. “But this is different. With all the unknowns, it’s becoming more difficult to have answers as quickly as people want them.
Mortensen plans to keep the community informed by email and by updating the district’s FaceBook page and website as new information is made available.
“We are working diligently to offer meals to all students up to 18 years old,” he said. “We’ll have more details in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, all school activities are canceled.
Mortensen said the district is in continual communication with Governor Doug Ducey’s office and the Arizona Department of Education for the latest information on the duration of the closure.
“This virus situation changes continuously, and as we learn of these changes, we’ll keep updating the information for our community’s benefit.”
St. David Unified School District Superintendent Arleen Kennedy said that St. David has been impacted in a unique way by the COVID-19 pandemic, as several teachers and staff members are in the targeted age range for susceptibility.
“We were on spring break during the week of March 9th through 13th, so we had already made the decision to extend our spring break prior to Governor Ducey’s announcement to close the schools. After speaking with Mrs. Carrie Langley, Director of Cochise County Health and Social Services, it became obvious that proactive measures could help slow down the progression of the virus as it starts moving across the state.”
Kennedy said the school district has scheduled deep cleaning measures while the school is closed.
When asked about providing lunches, Kennedy said that St. David’s student population does not require free lunch services.
“We typically have an open campus lunch setting for high school students and services for the elementary students basically supplement prepared items brought from home,” Kennedy said.
“The district has canceled all sporting events. Board meetings will be postponed and rescheduled after schools are reopened,” she said.
“The district has a Google classroom in place and has sent out communications for classwork that could support student learning during this time,” Kennedy said.
“I think we have done a great job of securing our district and keeping the welfare of our students the primary focus.”
The issue of what are the options for parents who cannot stay home was only tangentially addressed by the governor and his team.
“For families for whom (staying home) is not an option, we are coordinating with partners in the non-profit, faith-based and education communities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA to make available childcare options to families who need it,” Ducey said in a separate online video he made with Hoffman. No specifics were provided.
Of note is that the decision comes less than a week after state Health Director Cara Christ suggested that closing schools was not a good option. She said it was better for children to remain with others rather than end up elsewhere, mixing with other children and potentially spreading the disease even further.
The governor had no explanation of why that argument no longer makes sense in his mind.
But Ducey also was facing pressure from another front.
Earlier Sunday, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas sent a letter to the governor saying his organization was calling for students to remain home “until education leaders and state policymakers can present a detailed plan of support that assures students will be returning to safe classrooms and healthy school sites.”
“While any school closure can be disruptive, it is reckless to pretend we are sending our teachers, staff, and students into safe environments Monday morning,” Thomas wrote. “Arizona needs time to assess how healthy our schools can be and what the rest of the school year will look like for our students. We must act now for all our safety.”
In some ways, the joint announcement was anticlimatic.
Officials in dozens of school districts already had reached the same conclusion. This just makes it official — and covers the more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide.
The pair said they were in no rush to issue such an edict.
“We’ve worked hard to keep our school doors open,” the announcement says. “These are important assets in people’s lives and many families rely on them for nutrition and access to health care.”
What changed, they suggested, was the developing situation.
“Staffing and potential absences are a concern in many districts,” the announcement says.
“This decision was not made lightly,” Ducey said in the video explaining the action. “But it’s the right thing to do to bring certainty and consistency to all Arizona schools.”
Some of what will happen now is up to individual districts.
For example, the announcement says the state is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools to begin “summer food service operations,” providing boxed meals as needed. Parents were told to get specifics with local schools.
Also not yet decided is the effect on employees, both teachers and classified staff ranging from cafeteria workers to bus drivers.
“We’re working together to make sure you don’t see any disruption to your pay,” the announcement says. “We’ll also be consulting with our district and legislative partners to determine the extent of any makeup days.”
Also unclear is what happens to statewide achievement tests that are scheduled, tests that are linked to federal aid.
“We’re currently engaging with our federal partners in the event that we need to secure a waiver,” the pair said.
The announcement also urges school officials to make plans for what happens when school resumes to ensure “a safe learning environment.”
Some of that involves issues like “social distancing,” the idea of keeping students separated from each other to the extent possible. That, however, could prove difficult in classrooms given that the Centers for Disease Control suggests a six-foot margin.
Other post-reopening measures include regular intervals for administrators to wash and sanitize their hands as well as guidance on how to properly and frequently sanitize equipment and surfaces.
“We all have a role in confronting the impact of COVID-19,” Ducey said in the video. “We’re going to act together and we’re going to get through this together.”