Lily Altavena – Arizona Republic
(CNT) City News Talk #arizona
It is still unclear who requested the controversial revisions to Arizona school closure guidelines, changes that could leave schools open longer in the event of an increase in COVID-19 cases.
On Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey told reporters at a news conference that the changes were made at the recommendation of public education leaders.
“These guidelines were adjusted at the request of public education leaders, in coordination with public health officials,” he said.
The statement was made not long after he promised his administration would be “fully transparent” about decisions through the pandemic.
But the governor’s office and the Arizona Department of Health Services have not answered requests for the names of those leaders. And the list of education leaders denying that they made such a request is getting longer.
At the top of that list is schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, who leads the Arizona Department of Education, the state agency that oversees public schools. Hoffman on Thursday on Twitter wrote that her department did not make such a request.
This is not the first time during the pandemic where top officials have said they weren’t involved in key decision-making. Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego in June after Ducey announced a statewide curfew order said she hadn’t spoken to him since March, when the pandemic began.
Daniel Scarpinato, the governor’s chief of staff, sidestepped that question in a Twitter thread on Friday, repeating that the benchmarks are voluntary for schools.
Most metro Phoenix districts began the year following the state-developed benchmarks, but by late September, many had bucked those recommendations.
Metrics currently show that Valley schools should operate in a hybrid format, where some students are on-campus and some learn virtually, but major districts, including Gilbert Unified, have abandoned that model in favor of fully reopening.
Others, like Phoenix Union, have remained fully virtual.
Top education leaders: We didn’t make this request
Mark Joraanstad, the executive director of Arizona School Administrators, said he’s heard from dozens of school superintendents about the issue, all of whom were “caught by surprise.” Several county school superintendents and the leader of the Arizona Rural Schools Association also said they were not involved.
“There were no representatives of schools present in any of these discussions that led to the decision,” he said.
The Arizona School Boards Association, which represents district school boards across the state, released a statement Wednesday stating that it also was not included in conversations about the guideline change.
“This change was made without, to our knowledge, a concerted effort to communicate the reasoning for the change, or to understand the potential impact this change would have on district planning for the remainder of the year,” according to the statement.
Leaders of the Arizona Education Association, the state’s biggest teacher association, also said they weren’t consulted.
Discussions began in late September
Meeting minutes and email records provided by the Arizona Department of Health Services show that health officials were discussing the change as early as Sept. 30, during a schools opening task force meeting.
The minutes show a bullet point that reads, “Reopening schools benchmark document being revised.”
The new guidance might lead to schools staying open longer. However, schools do not have to follow the state guidance, because it’s not mandated.
The virus spread would need to categorized as “substantial” in all three state metrics for the state to recommend the shift back to virtual learning. Before the state’s revision, health officials recommended closure of in-person school if one metric shifted to “substantial” spread, not all three.
Joraanstad said school superintendents and other education leaders he’s talked to don’t agree with the changes.
“We feel like it was the wrong direction to be going at this point with the virus numbers spiking all over their state,” he said.
Another set of meeting minutes lists emails for the “school task force.” Six of the seven emails listed are Arizona Department of Health Services email addresses, and one address is associated with the Arizona Department of Education.
Education department officials have not denied being present at the meetings. Hoffman only denied requesting the changes.
Dr. Cara Christ, AZDHS director, emphasized in a blog post Thursday that the state-developed metrics are optional.
“Ultimately, as has been the case since the benchmarks were released, local school authorities continue to be the ultimate decision makers when it comes to determining the best instructional model to use,” she wrote.