Gov. Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey last week briefed the news media on the pandemic in Arizona, saying that while there were some encouraging trends, COVID-19 still poses a grave threat to people.

More than 80 members of school boards across Arizona – including one from Higley Unified – have called on state officials to delay opening campuses until at least Oct. 1.

Higley board member Scott Glover is among those who have signed a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the Legislature. Some board members from Chandler Unified, Mesa Public Schools, Tempe Union and Kyrene are also among the East Valley officials who signed the letter.

“Positive cases in Arizona are trending upward, not downward,” the letter states. “We cannot reopen our schools for on-site learning until we experience a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period.” 

The letter, which does not represent official board positions but rather the feelings of individuals serving on them, makes a series of other requests.

But even though Higley per se is not represented as a district, the letter came up for a brief discussion during the Higley Governing Board meeting last week.

Board Vice President Kristina Reese said she had received several phone calls, emails and texts asking why she didn’t sign the letter and from some who thanked her for not signing.

She said the letter did not go out to all board members and that had she received it she personally would not have signed it. She gave no further explanation.

Ducey has delayed the opening of campuses until Aug. 17 – a date he called “aspirational” rather than set in stone but which he said last week he hopes will be real. He said he and Hoffman would have more to say this week on reopening.

Gilbert Public Schools will reopen with all-online instruction for all grades Aug. 5 and Higley does the same July 27.

No GPS board members signed the letter, which asks for a COVID-19-case data point for districts to use in determining when to reopen campuses and also asks for statewide safety protocols.

It also seeks equal per-pupil funding for both online and in-class students; a waiver of the 180-day instruction requirement; suspension of standardized state assessment tests for the school year with allowance for districts to use their own student-performance measurements; and permission to distribute breakfasts and lunches even when campuses are closed. 

 “Let administrators and teachers plan for and excel at teaching the first quarter remotely,” the letter states. 

In their request for suspending state achievement tests, the board members wrote:

“We ask that our focus this academic year be offering high-quality remote-learning and a measured return to safe in-person classes, rather than on reaching higher levels of academic success as measured by a single assessment.”

It also complained the state penalizes school districts for offering only remote learning by providing a lower per-pupil reimbursement than it does for in-classroom students.

The letter was sent within days of stepped-up pressure two weeks ago by President Trump, members of his cabinet and other leading Republicans, who demanded that schools reopen for in-class learning when their school year officially begins.

U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, led a group of Republican lawmakers on July 9 who demanded that schools reopen as usual in the fall, stating, “It would be more harmful to keep children locked out of schools and less harmful and less risky for children to go back to schools.”

During a press conference the same day, Ducey said he won’t play politics in deciding when campuses can reopen.

And on the same day of his press conference, Scottsdale Unified became the first district in Arizona to announce it won’t reopen their schools before Sept. 8.

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also said on July 9 that while she wants to get students back in the classroom, “we cannot ignore the severity of COVID-19 in our state and how that impacts adults and children alike in our school communities.”

Speakers at the event organized by the House Freedom Caucus, which Biggs chairs, called the CDC guidelines “ridiculous” and “extremely harmful” for students’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

They repeatedly noted that being kept out of school is bad for children’s emotional health and that COVID-19 is neither dangerous to children nor easily spread by them.

Meanwhile, Snowflake Republican Sylvia Allen, who chairs the State Senate Education Committee, told Cronkite News she doubts Ducey has the power to delay the reopening of campuses.

“It is time to stop, call a special session, and get back to the constitutional operations of our state,” Allen said.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, a teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, doubts that a special legislative session is feasible and she worries how many legislators would actually show up because of COVID-19 concerns and obligations to family members who may be sick or at risk.

“Calling a special session would end up with a bunch of people running in different directions, which is not going to help,” Udall said. “I don’t think we have enough consensus to get anything done.”

Despite such reservations, Udall said, she “would love” to hold a special session to address education issues. However, she and Allen both support giving schools the authority to delay the start of in-person classes. 

Allen said she recently worked on her own legislation that would have provided, among other items, “local control and flexibility for schools opening and determination of health protocols.”

Hoffman pointed to students with medical conditions and many others in schools – “instructional aides, librarians, bus drivers, nutrition workers and more” – who could be put at risk.