On Sept. 3, the Arizona Department of Health Services announced six counties have reached the public health benchmarks to start hybrid in-person and online K-12 school instruction.
The department identified in August three data areas to determine when it is safe for schools to begin transitioning back to in-person learning. Most K-12 schools across the state have performed instruction remotely since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in March.
The benchmarks mandate that a region must see a sustained decrease in new coronavirus cases and related hospitalizations as well as a testing positivity rate that is below 10 percent. In Pima County, the local health department has created their own set of benchmarks, consisting of nine public health criteria.
Now that Pima County is trending in the right direction, local school districts have been discussing plans for what hybrid learning could entail.
On Sept. 9, the board of Tucson's largest public school district voted to move forward with a hybrid learning model on Monday, Oct. 19 if the county's downward trajectory of COVID-19 continues.
According to Pima County's COVID-19 Progress Report, five of the nine health criteria are making "progress" or have been officially "met." The progress report tracks local disease data, healthcare capacity and public health capacity.
Because of this, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo recommended to the board members during their Sept. 9 meeting that the district embrace the public health data indicating it is safe for a hybrid model of education. This would comprise "some kind of a combination of return to traditional in-person learning, standing alongside the online learning model that parents will still be able to opt-in to," Trujillo said.
While some district staff and families have expressed concern over reopening schools during a global pandemic, Trujillo said the entire plan is contingent on the Pima County Health Department's recommendation that it is safe to move to a hybrid model during the week of Oct. 19. If Coronavirus cases begin to rise again, the plan may be put on hold.
The board also agreed to begin a phased reopening of district administration departments on Monday, Sept. 21. At the board's next meeting on Sept. 22, Trujillo will bring forward his initial proposal with more detail on what hybrid learning will look like in TUSD.
Sunnyside Superintendent Steve Holmes told board members last Tuesday, Sept. 8, that hybrid learning could also be established in their district, the second largest in Pima County, as long as COVID-19 trends continue to improve.
The Pima County Health Department believes their nine public health benchmarks will all be in the yellow sometime during September. For SUSD, families could have two options for their children beginning Oct. 19: hybrid learning with staggered schedules, or remain with fully online instruction.
The district released a survey to all families on Sept. 9 to find out which option they will choose once hybrid learning becomes available. In a previous survey, Holmes said between 25 to 40 percent of parents in the Sunnyside district wanted to keep their children at home and learning online.
With the responses from this new survey, Holmes said the district can begin planning the logistics of a staggered schedule.
During their board discussions, Marana Superintendent Dan Streeter said hybrid learning could consist of alternate days on campus or some students learning in-person while others stick with online learning. It all depends on how many families opt-in to a hybrid learning model and how that will affect schools' ability to maintain social distancing and other health practices.
"Hybrid is referencing how do you handle physical distancing, cohorting and some of those communal spaces," Streeter told the board members on Sept. 3. "So you have to look at community spread levels but we also have to get a good grasp of what our student numbers on campus will look like, as we start to define what that specific educational model looks like."
MUSD board member Tom Carlson said general statements from district staff and parents declaring it's unsafe for schools to open are "not helpful." He wants constituents to tell the board what conditions would be appropriate for reopening.
"Given that the disease metrics now are all green for Pima County—and those are the metrics that are produced by health professionals that everybody has been advocating that we rely upon—it would be very helpful to be specific about why you think that it's not safe, given that the medical people think that it is," Carlson said.
Sandy Faulk, president of the Marana Education Association, said that a district email sent out to all staff on Sept. 2 indicating that MUSD will be "accelerating the process to return to sites" left staff angry, afraid and confused. She told board members there is a lot of work left to do in order for schools to comply with the district's mitigation plan and be safe enough to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
"We want students and staff to return when it's safe," Faulk said. "Just because we have met the metrics of yellow, does not necessarily mean that it is safe. Some teachers say that we could return with some of them in red, and some say we should wait until they're all green."
MUSD Board President Dan Post expressed concern for parents with young children who are struggling to supervise their children's schoolwork and perform their own jobs. He said the board is "committed" to a reopening on Oct. 19 and they will "do the best we can" to make sure it is as safe as possible.
The Amphitheater School District board was scheduled to review a reopening proposal during their meeting Sept. 15. The proposal includes reopening school sites on Oct. 12 for a new hybrid in-person and online learning model for their K-12 students.
"The hybrid model consists of students being divided into cohorts with only certain cohorts attending school on certain days, with the other cohorts still receiving instructional services remotely at that same time, and then the cohorts reversing those modalities on alternating days," the proposal states.
Amphi leaders had previously hoped that COVID-19 data trends would look good enough by this point to allow for a full reopening of campuses in October. But the Pima County Health Department has strongly advised against any school returning to fully traditional in-person classroom learning during the month of October.
In an email, the district stated that families and staff are concerned about the need for social distancing relative to class sizes. The administration believes their new hybrid approach will allow them to reduce in-person class sizes and safely offer an in-person learning option to families who want it.
"We recognize the need for a balance between getting students back in school and doing so safely," the email states. "We believe our proposal does both."
The hybrid learning model is required to follow the district's mitigation plan, which lays out logistics of public health practices (such as handwashing and social distancing) that are intended to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in school settings.
The Catalina Foothills School District sent out a letter to district families on Sept. 3 saying that they will continue with an all-online learning model for now. They cited the county health department's concern over COVID-19 spread within the University of Arizona community as a factor of their decision.