The state’s top school official wants Gov. Doug Ducey to keep schools closed to in-person learning for two weeks following the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the state.
“Given the severity of our state’s situation and the virus’s trajectory after the holiday period, Gov. Doug Ducey should order schools to remain in distance learning for a limited two-week period,” Kathy Hoffman said over the weekend, telling Capitol Media Services that opening schools immediately after the holidays is “reckless.”
But an aide to the governor said he has no interest in doing that.
“Gov. Ducey will not be considering this request or issuing this kind of mandate,” said spokesman C.J. Karamargin.
Students in all schools in Ahwatukee are learning at home this week and it was unclear whether any would be returning to classrooms next week.
Tempe Union and Kyrene both said they would rely on the updated data on virus spread that will be released tomorrow, Jan. 7, by the county health department.
But that data the county released Dec. 31 showed cases per 100,000 had increased beyond the numbers last recorded for both districts while the two other benchmarks – positive new test results and percentage of hospital visits with COVID-like symptoms – had changed little.
All three benchmarks remained in the “substantial spread category,” which the county has suggested warrants online learning for all students, though districts are not required to follow that guideline.
The data released last week also showed that all three Ahwatukee ZIP codes remained at a “substantial spread” level.
Hoffman pointed out that the state Department of Health Services has found that the risk of infection in the state is considered “substantial.” That includes an average of 648 cases per 100,000 residents, far above what is considered in the moderate risk range of anything below 100 cases.
Cases per 100,000 in Kyrene were at 476 and in Tempe Union at 503, according to the data Maricopa County health officials released Dec. 31.
Hoffmann also noted that 17.5 percent of the tests for the virus are coming back positive and that more than 14 percent of hospital visits are for COVID-like illness.
Positive test results in Kyrene and Tempe Union were at 13 percent and 11.7 percent, respectively, while hospital visits were at or close to 12 percent in both districts.
Even more significant is that the figures the health department uses to determine current risk levels in Arizona actually are two weeks old. Since that time, all of the numbers have gone even higher and hospitals are at record-low level of beds to care for patients.
Karamargin said there is no need for the governor to take action.
“This is a local decision,” Karamargin said, with online learning already an option for those districts that want to offer it.
And even if it were not, he said that Ducey doesn’t think that keeping schools closed any longer makes sense.
“The governor has repeatedly made his preference clear: Kids have already lost out on a lot of learning and he wants schools opened, safely,” Karamargin said.
Hoffman told Capitol Media Services the two-week period she is suggesting is designed to coincide with a standard quarantine period after people may have been exposed.
And she said she understands that nothing in either state law or gubernatorial guidance precludes a local school board from unilaterally extending online learning for another two weeks.
But the schools chief said a broader mandate is appropriate.
“We’re coming back from the holidays and cases are through the roof,” Hoffman said. “Right now it seems reckless for any schools to be offering in-person instruction.”
The most recent data shows another 46 deaths were reported Saturday, bringing the statewide total of 9,061. And another 8,883 new cases puts the statewide tally at more than 539,000.
Even with all that, the superintendent of public instruction said that there are some districts that are not listening to the recommendations of their local health departments which have warned of the spread of the virus if students go back to class.
Anyway, Hoffman said, it’s not like she is proposing that schools remain shuttered for some indefinite period, even with the spike in cases.
“It’s just for two weeks,” she said. And Hoffman said that schools still are generally required to provide a safe place for students during the day, even if all learning is remote.
What makes it more dangerous, Hoffman said, is that Arizona hospitals are filling up.
More than 60 percent of beds in intensive-care units are occupied by patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19. When other non-COVID patients are added to the mix, that leaves just 132 ICU beds available statewide for those who need it, just 7 percent of capacity.
Inpatient bed usage also remains at record levels, with just a 7 percent vacancy rate.
And there are more patients on ventilators now than there have been since the pandemic began.
Banner Health Systems, the state’s largest hospital network, already is turning away ambulances and transfers from other hospitals, though it is still accepting walk-in patients who need emergency care.
Several hospitals also have stopped doing elective procedures, those that doctors determine can wait a few weeks without endangering the life or health of the patient.
“Our teachers who are being asked to go teach in person despite the very high risk and high spread of COVID in the community are very fearful because they’re worried; because if they get sick are they going to be able to get care in a medical facility?” Hoffman said.
The schools chief noted there is another reason that a delay may help stop the spread.
She pointed out that the priority that state health officials have set for who gets the vaccine puts teachers and school staff into the 1-B category, second behind health care workers and staffers in long-term care facilities.
That 1-B category also includes child-care workers, public safety personnel and those age 75 and older.
State health officials have said they hope to begin administering to those in the 1-B category this month, though for the moment that will include only the first of what needs to be a two-shot regimen.
But there is believed to be some protection offered from just that first inoculation.