Local officials are working to reopen both K-12 public schools and the University of Arizona in August.
Earlier this week, the Arizona Department of Education released a list of guidelines for how to best reopen schools. The 41-page guideline provides a series of recommendations for how public, private and charter schools can approach the return of students, including "adaptable considerations to meet each community's unique needs."
The document was prepared after working with the Task Force for Reopening Schools, which included local representatives from Tucson, Flowing Wells, Sahuarita and Sunnyside school districts and students from Mountain View, Canyon del Oro and BASIS Oro Valley high schools.
"There are still many unknowns about the future of this virus and its impact on our state," State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman wrote in her introductory message. "Still, the Arizona Department of Education remains committed to providing the field with as much guidance, support, and clarity as possible."
The guidelines include an evaluation of the 2019-2020 school year closure, identification of essential functions and alternative options, a communications plan and a series of health recommendations designed to assist administrators in making reopening decisions.
Some of those guidelines include student temperature screenings at home and on campus, physical distancing of desks and modified classroom layouts, staggered scheduling, enhanced cleaning procedures and promoting the use of cloth face coverings for any student over the age of 2.
"Face coverings may be challenging for students (especially younger students) to wear in all-day settings such as school," the guidelines read. "Face coverings should be worn by staff and students (particularly older students), as feasible, and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult. Individuals should be frequently reminded not to touch the face covering and to wash their hands frequently. Information should be provided to staff, students, and students' families on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings."
The roadmap to reopening schools also includes four potential scenarios from which educators can structure their plans: All students in physical buildings from the start of the year, a mix of in-person and distance learning, beginning the year distance learning with an option to return to campus and intermittent distance learning throughout the school year.
Superintendent Steve Holmes of the Sunnyside Unified School District said these guidelines fall in line with the guidance they have been receiving from the state department of education over the last month, along with a lot of the ideas produced by local and national superintendents about what schools could look like during COVID-19.
He said equity, choice and safety are the three most important principles for reopening Sunnyside's schools. The district plans to provide parents with different options for how their schools could operate. Sunnyside has the ability to put together a hybrid form of instruction because every student in grades 4 through 12 already has access to a personal laptop issued by the district.
Holmes said they are prepared to continue remote learning if needed. However, the safety aspect of in-person instruction will be a little harder to navigate, Holmes said. He has received some concerns from teachers on how to implement safety precautions.
"I think it's easy for us to put desks six feet apart and facing forward," Holmes said. "The hard part is, how do you manage that once kids are there, and particularly the younger students who learn much more socially and interact with one another."
Ultimately, Holmes said the decision to return to the classroom will be driven by the percentage of parents who choose not to send their kids back to school. If less students come back to in-person instruction, social distancing will be easier to manage.
The University of Arizona
is a higher education institution that operates much differently than a public school. But President Robert C. Robbins and university leaders have detailed plans that follow the same principles as the department of education to bring their 60,000 people back to campus.
Robbins said last week that the UA intends to reopen in the fall, but if the state of COVID-19 worsens by then, they will reassess. Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general who is tasked with directing the campus reentry plan, said the university will use the epidemiological data to drive their decisions.
UA Provost Liesl Folks said the university will ensure the return to campus is as flexible as possible. They will have lower occupancy in dorms that can accommodate social distancing, and all university classes will be flexible between in-person and online instruction.
"Students that are very comfortable coming into face-to-face instruction are able to do that, and can get a full campus experience and a full, rich, engaged learning classroom experience, but if they need to step out of that for any reason, either because they're in a high-risk category or because they might have come into contact with somebody who's tested positive and so they need to quarantine for 14 days, then we'll provide for them an opportunity to continue learning through remote and online means," Folks said. "They'll still be able to engage with their class, they'll still be able to engage with their faculty members, but they'll be able to do that from their homes."
Folks said the university needs to be prepared to move in and out of face-to-face instruction as the circumstances dictate. Everyone in the university will be required to wear face masks indoors at all times, unless they're in their own separate office. She said the data is showing "unambiguously" that indoor spaces cause a much higher risk of spreading the disease than outdoors.
Along with this effort is a new Bluetooth contact tracing app being headed by Joyce Schroeder, the department head and professor of molecular and cellular biology. This new app will be available for anyone in the university community and will supplement existing manual contact tracing practices.
The app allows the user to self-report if they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 while keeping them completely anonymous. It will interact with other people's phones in the community to alert if they have come in contact with an infected person. Use of the app will not be required by the university, but they strongly encourage that a majority of people use it in order to better prevent more transmissions.
"It's up to you, nobody is going to force you to use this," Schroeder said. "But we're going to hope that everybody uses it because the more people on campus who use this technology, the safer we're all going to be."
Robbins hopes to have a final answer about reopening two months before the first day of school, August 24, so that students can have time to plan their living situations and other matters.