Arizona won't require schools to open as planned in 3 weeks

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PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona won't require public schools to fully reopen for in-person learning as expected in mid-August as the coronavirus pandemic continues at a high level in the state.

Instead, the state Health Services Department will develop a set of scientific guidelines that school districts and local public health officials can use to determine if it is safe to do so, Gov. Doug Ducey announced Thursday.

The Republican governor had set Aug. 17 as the "aspirational" date for schools to reopen in full, but the state's two-month surge of virus cases made that impossible. Schools will be required to begin classes on their normal start date and provide instruction for the full 180 required school days, starting with remote online classes.

They also will be required to ensure that in-person resources are available for at-risk students and those whose parents need to send them to school so they can work. That could include computer labs where children can complete online work rather than traditional in-person schooling.

The health guidelines will be released by Aug. 7 and contain specific metrics many school officials had sought to make decisions on the safety of opening schools. The new plan covers 1.1 million public school students in district and charter schools statewide. It doesn't cover private or parochial schools.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat, joined Ducey at Thursday's weekly virus briefing and said the goal is to provide “clarity and guidance” around the coming school year.

“Teaching and learning will happen no matter what the next school year will look like in your community,” Hoffman promised. She noted that some districts had already delayed in-person instruction to October.

The governor also announced an additional $370 million for schools from his discretionary pot of federal coronavirus funding. The money will help schools with extra expenses for online classes and for returning to schools, and provided through grants if schools give options to students who need to be on campus.

The grants are designed to make up for a 5% funding cut schools would take in they went online, and boost it by 5% if they hold in-person classes.

Ducey also Thursday extended indefinitely the order he issued late last month again closing bars, nightclubs and gyms. Although the state is finally seeing early signs that cases are declining, those closures are having an impact and won't be reversed, the governor said.

“There’s no victory lap today, there’s no celebration,” Ducey said. “We cannot let up – we need to be vigilant every day in the state of Arizona.”

Ducey allowed local governments in June to impose requirements for face masks in public spaces, and 90% of the state's population is now covered by those orders. Ducey pointed to the closure and mask orders as leading to a drop in new cases in the past two weeks for the first time in months.

The decisions came as the state's death toll from the coronavirus topped 3,000. The state Health Services Department reported 89 new deaths Thursday, bringing the statewide total since the outbreak began to 3,063. More than 1,000 of those deaths have been reported in the past 15 days.

The state now has 152,944 confirmed virus cases, with an additional 2,335 reported Thursday. The number of actual infections in Arizona and elsewhere is thought to be much higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Arizona schools were closed to in-person learning on March 15, and students shifted to online instruction for the rest of the school year. Ducey then closed most of the state in late March and reopened the state in mid-May.

He ordered bars and gyms to close again on June 29 for at least a month as a surge in cases erupted in the weeks after he allowed a six-week stay-home order to expire in mid-May. The rise in cases made Arizona into a national hot spot and forced the governor to rethink his reopening orders.

In other developments: — Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office confirmed that jail inmates started a disturbance last week over their frustrations with COVID-19 prevention measures as they were being moved into and out of jail pods.

Seven inmates in the Saguaro Jail refused orders to return to their beds during the July 13 disturbance, leading detention officers to launch pepper balls, the agency said.

Agency spokeswoman Norma Gutierrez said one inmate threw a chair and water bottle, but neither was in the direction of detention officers. “At no time have inmates taken control of any area of the Saguaro Jail or physically attack staff,” Gutierrez said.


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