Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday defended Arizona school districts that plan to reopen for in-person learning next week, despite not meeting benchmarks recommended by his administration.
He said he was “highly supportive” of students returning to the classroom, even as the state’s top health officer acknowledged the state has “a lot” left to learn about COVID-19.
“What we wanted to do was provide a menu of options and flexibility in the (reopening) guidelines,” Ducey told reporters. “We’re going to leave ultimate and final decisions to superintendents and principals, and I’m confident they’ll make good decisions.”
State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman and Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ unveiled the benchmarks last Thursday, one day before the deadline Ducey had given them to develop them.
They said districts could choose whether to implement them, unlike the mandatory reopening benchmarks for Arizona businesses.
The guidelines suggest districts wait to reopen for in-person learning — and do so at reduced capacity and with extensive precautions — until their county moves from having “substantial” transmission to at least “moderate” transmission.
That would require:
- A county’s rate of new cases per 100,000 people to dip below 100 per week for two weeks or a consecutive two-week decline in cases.
- A positivity, or infection, rate of less than 7%.
- A hospitalization rate that remains below 10% for two weeks.
As of Thursday, no county in Arizona had met all three benchmarks.
Health director: ‘Safe environment’ possible with precautions
Ducey said he nonetheless supported districts opting to reopen soon because “many of our counties are headed in the right direction.”
“We’re not ignoring the benchmarks,” he said, as his exchanges with reporters grew more testy. “Many of the districts are close on the benchmarks.”
In-person learning conditions vary from district to district, he said: Some are “packed with children,” for instance, while others have “more room and availability.” And schools will offer a distance learning option “for anyone that would like it.”
Christ indicated officials were weighing the “many things that happen at school that are important for the appropriate growth and development of children” against pandemic risks, and said student safety will depend on districts’ “mitigation measures.”
“If they can appropriately physically distance, if they can make them wear the masks, if they are able to cohort groups — that would be a safe environment for kids to return, knowing that a portion of them are going to stay virtual,” she said.
Christ recognized that officials are still learning the ins and outs of the virus, however, and making decisions based on information that could change.
“Kids appear at this time to not transmit the virus as effectively as adults,” she said. “As we learn more, that is something we could find out more about.”
Unemployment claim backlog persists
Reporters also pressed Ducey on the state’s lingering backlog for unemployment benefits, which has left 37,000 applicants in the lurch.
“They’re fielding as many as 10,000 phone calls a day and they need to be able to do more,” he said of the Department of Economic Security, which has seen record-breaking applications for unemployment benefits this year.
He said officials “want to clear the backlog” but did not offer a timeline more precise than “as soon as possible.”
“We’ve been hiring additional people, adding resources and servers to address the need and we want to do it as quickly as possible,” Ducey said.
The backlog has persisted despite former DES Director Tom Betlach returning to lead the agency for 75 days earlier in the pandemic — and collecting a paycheck worth nearly $95,000 for his time on the job.
Ducey applauded Betlach’s efforts, however, arguing he’d helped manage the stress placed on the agency as unemployment claims skyrocketed.
“In Arizona’s time of maximum challenge, he came out of retirement to help fix and address the stress that was put on the Department of Economic Security,” he said. “We’re grateful for Tom Betlach.”
The governor did not provide a direct answer regarding how the state plans to proceed with unemployment payouts after President Donald Trump announced he would roll back the extended benefits to $400 a week from $600 a week, in lieu of Congress failing to reach a deal on the payments.
The state must chip in $100 a week to those additional benefits under that plan, while the federal government would cover $300.
Ducey said he would have more details to release on Friday.
In the meantime, he repeatedly emphasized the $8.5 billion in unemployment benefits he said the state had already paid out.
“The state has never dispersed dollars at the rate or amount that we’ve been dispersing for the last several months in the history of the state,” he said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-653-6807. Follow her on Twitter @mpolletta.
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