New executive order sets reopening date for Arizona’s public schools

KMSB 9-10 p.m. recurring (FROM SB) - clipped version

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday, mandating schools must return to in-person learning by Monday, March 15, 2021, or after schools’ spring break.

Exceptions will be made for middle and high schools in counties with a high level of COVID-19 spread, which includes Coconino, Yavapai, and Pinal counties, according to a news release from the governor’s office. However, students can continue remote learning if their parent or guardian chooses.

The governor’s office stated the new executive order comes after new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which details how schools can reopen safely and what proper mitigation measures to follow.

Under CDC criteria, the governor’s office stated all schools must offer in-person learning. The new order also updates the state health department’s school reopening benchmarks first released last fall.

“Arizona’s students need to be back in the classroom. More than half of Arizona’s schools are open and offering in-person options. More schools need to follow their lead, and pave the way for equitable education options for every Arizona student,” Ducey stated in the release. “The CDC and numerous health officials have said time and time again that schools are safe and kids can go back to the classroom. We prioritized teachers in our vaccine distribution, and many have already received their second dose. The science is clear: it’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap.”

Pima County School Superintendent, Dustin Williams, says many educators were caught off guard.

“I don’t like the communication behind it,” said Williams. “In all the circles I run with, we weren’t aware of it, we didn’t know it was coming.”

Most public schools in Pima County have already returned to in-person instruction. The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) is the last district to open, with plans to bring students back after spring break.

Williams says districts are left with questions.

“We don’t know what the consequences are [if districts remain virtual or return to virtual],” he said. “We just want to make sure if there is a COVID-like instance at a school that we can close a site or close a classroom with no limitations. I am a strong proponent of local control. These elected governing board members are professionals, they have been voted in by the people. The authority should lie with the schools.”

Below is the statement from the Office of Superintendent Kathy Hoffman on Ducey’s executive order:

“The Arizona Department of Education (ADE) is supportive of schools using layered mitigation strategies to safely initiate or expand in-person learning, as Superintendent Hoffman said in a press conference last week. However, the timing of this announcement will make it challenging for some schools that had already made plans to return to in-person instruction on a different schedule due to their local community circumstances. As a state, we should be collaborating to provide as much preparation and planning time as possible ahead of significant changes to school operations. To achieve stability for our school communities, it’s necessary to provide them with adequate time to inform and ready their staff, students and families.

With this new Executive Order (EO 2021-04), our goal will be to provide schools with the support needed to implement the requirements ahead of the March 15th reporting date. ADE would like to clarify that Tribal Sovereignty is still in effect regarding this new order – if a sovereign Tribal Nation has issued a stay-at-home order mandating students stay in distance learning, the new executive order does not impact them.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Arizona schools have prioritized their school communities’ safety and well-being. That is no different under EO-2021-04. The Department stands ready to support all schools as they foster safe teaching and learning environments.”

The Arizona Education Association (AEA) also released a statement:

“For the past 11 months, educators have gone above and beyond to provide our students with learning opportunities as our communities were living through a pandemic. From the day the governor told schools to shift to distance learning the Arizona Education Association has been very clear in calling for the resources needed to support a safe return to in-person instruction.

“Throughout the summer and fall we continued to call on Governor Ducey to implement a statewide COVID-19 school safety plan,” said AEA President Joe Thomas. “He refused to meet with educators and left it to school districts to develop their own plans. Now, after educators, school administrators, and parents have done the hard work to move toward reopening schools (and remain open), the governor issues an executive order to take credit for others’ year-long planning and efforts without offering any resources.”

Copyright 2021 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.