Sahuarita Unified School District, Continental Elementary School District and Great Expectations Academy are waiting on additional guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services before making a decision on reopening for in-person classes.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order July 23 gave districts the authority to decide when to resume in-person learning based on public health data metrics from state and county health departments. 

The state’s benchmark metrics will come next week.

Pima County suggests waiting

Pima County released guidance to districts Tuesday recommending schools wait until after Labor Day, Sept. 7, before they allow schools to resume in-person. 

Included in the memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry were reasons it’s not safe to reopen classroom doors including the number of cases in the county, hospital bed availability and test result timeliness.

Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams said safety was the priority for reopening county schools and he’s glad the governor's latest order allows county health departments to make regional specific guidance. 

“We’ve all been held up in the governor's court and he did say that now the county could give guidance based on trends and numbers,” Williams said. “We want to make sure our policies are dialed in so that districts, charters and private schools have the same road map for success.” 

In an effort to help, the superintendent’s office distributed free personal protection equipment to districts this week.

Williams said when the pandemic began, PPE was scarce and schools had supported the Office of Emergency Management by printing face shields with their 3D printers. A partnership grew and schools helped to provide face shields to first responders and those in the medical field. 

Now, schools face struggles getting protective supplies like masks.  

“We want to step up and be a provider of PPE for districts now so we started working on a weekly basis to figure out how we do it,” he said. “It’s a weight off their (districts) shoulders and it could not have come at a better time," he said.

Williams said districts were concerned they wouldn't have enough PPE to get through the first semester, let alone the whole year. 

SUSD received 860 masks, 8,600 gloves, 215 bottles of sanitizer and 172 face shields. 

CESD, which has only one K-8 school, received 100 masks, 1,000 gloves, 25 sanitizer bottles and 20 face shields. 

Williams said the county health department and superintendent's office are working to ensure policies and procedures that will support districts in rapid result COVID-19 testing.

“We’re going to do what we know is safe and we’ll do everything we can in the margin of time we have to get schools reopened,” he said. “It’s safety first and we must do this together as a community.”

State clarification 

Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak said districts ultimately have the power to determine their physical reopening date. 

“We trust our education leaders,” he said. “They are the closest to parents and students and they know what’s best. We trust them to make these decisions and we are giving them flexibility and empowering them.”

Also included in the governor's order is a requirement for schools to provide free on-site learning opportunities for students who need a safe place to go during the day or are considered high risk by Aug. 17 whether a school is open for in-person classes or not. 

“We know that for some students, fully virtual may not be an option because they may not have the internet or they may have an uncertain home life,” he said. “We need to make sure these kids have a safe place to go and take part in learning.”

Ptak said the on-site space will look different at each school and districts can open one facility or even partner with an organization like the Boys and Girls Club to meet the requirement. 

Arizona is investing $440 million in federal dollars with its Arizona: Open for Learning plan, including the Enrollment Stability Grant Program which minimizes the financial impact of enrollment declines.

The program utilizes state CARES Act money to fund online learners equally as in-person learners. 

“We've done a lot of outreach and heard of additional costs already occurring and will be on an ongoing basis, so we’ve protected districts in the budget," he said.

SUSD

Sahuarita Unified School District’s distance learning begins Aug. 10 for all students, but they are waiting on the Aug. 7 benchmarks from the state to determine when in-person classes will resume. 

Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said they will look at all the guidance to determine the next step for in-person classes. 

 “The step right now is we have kids in place ready to start with distance learning," he said.

Valenzuela said they are looking into all options as they move forward, including evaluating hybrid learning in case their traditional in-person plans can’t start as previously designed.

“The hybrid model seemed challenging but if it's a path, maybe not long term but intermediary, to bring students in person sooner we owe it to ourselves to develop and polish up that concept as potentially the next phase of the road back," he said. 

As for the on-site learning and services requirement, SUSD is trying to reach out to families to assess the need for on-site space during the day. 

He said they will continue to keep the community informed and he is excited to see digital learning begin soon. 

“We need to be willing to do whatever heavy lifting it takes slowly to make sure kids and staff are safe," he said. 

Continental 

CESD is awaiting additional guidance and Superintendent Roxana Rico said they are focusing on their plan for digital learning that begins Aug. 10.

"I'm confident in the plan we've developed to get school ready and prepared," she said. 

She said with the way their staffing and schedule has been set up, there will be teachers dedicated to the digital platform for students who select to stay online once in-person begins. 

With the requirement for on-site learning and support, Rico said they are working to contact families to assess the need for a space during the day. 

She does not anticipate many students will need this at CESD based on previous parent surveys and feedback. 

Great Expectations Academy

Great Expectations Academy, a Sahuarita charter school, on July 30 was the first school in the area to begin distance learning. 

Principal Jeremy Topp said too they are waiting until they receive the state guidance before making their decision on whether they will start in-person classes on Aug. 17 as planned. 

“We will then assess all pertinent information from local and federal sources to determine the risk/benefit of in-person learning,” he said.  

Jamie Verwys | 520-547-9728 

Reporter

Reporter Jamie Verwys grew up in Sahuarita and graduated from the high school in 2006. She lives in Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2018.