Gov. Doug Ducey last week defended hard-and-fast limits on some businesses’ reopening while saying it’s OK for schools to send children back to class even if local health conditions do not meet the guidelines set by his own state health director.
The governor also said that unlike the restrictions on businesses, he has no interest in making those safety guidelines for schools mandatory.
“We’ve got different variations of spread throughout the state,’’ Ducey said, adding the state and most counties are “headed in the right direction.’’
Ducey’s remarks came during a week when several landlord groups sued to overturn his eviction orders, bars are awaiting a state Supreme Court hearing on their effort to overturn his indefinite closure order and a Mesa water park filed suit to do the same.
“What we wanted to do is provide a menu of options and flexibility in the guidelines so there’s safety inside our schools,’’ the governor said. But he said the “ultimate and final decisions’’ go to superintendents and principals.
The guidelines released last week say that schools should consider a three-part test before offering any in-person instruction at all.
Schools are safe to open, the guidelines state, if there are: a decline in the number of cases for at least two weeks; two weeks where positive COVID-19 tests are less than 7 percent; fewer than 10 percent of hospital visits for at least two weeks are for people with COVID-like symptoms.
As of Thursday, Maricopa and 10 other counties met two of the three benchmarks with four meeting only one.
The health department has set similar benchmarks for reopening of now-shuttered businesses. But only two counties have reached the point where spread is considered only “moderate’’ and some of these can reopen, albeit only on a limited basis.
But while business activity is strictly regulated by those benchmarks, that’s not the case for schools. The guidelines for the latter are voluntary.
Officials in several districts have announced they plan to start in-person instruction this week. Ducey said he sees nothing wrong with that.
Some of it, he said, comes down to local conditions.
“We have some school districts that are packed with children,’’ he said. “We have others where there’s more room and availability.’’
“We’re not ignoring the benchmarks,’’ Ducey responded.
“Many of the districts are close on the benchmarks,’’ he said.
That drew questions about why the same options are not open to businesses in counties where the governor said it’s safe enough to send kids to school.
“Because we’ve been in the unhappy but responsible business of dispersing large adult gatherings,’’ Ducey responded.
All that raised questions about whether it is safer to have large gatherings of children.
“There’s still a lot that we’re trying to learn about the virus,’’ responded state Health Director Cara Christ, stating it appears that children do not transmit the virus “as effectively as adults.’’
But is it a risk to send children back into the classroom?
“It’s going to depend on those mitigation measures,’’ Christ said.
“If they can appropriately physically distance, if they make them wear the masks, if they are able to cohort groups, that would be a safe environment for kids to return,’’ she said.
Anyway, Christ said she believes that the issue of where kids learn goes beyond the question of safety.
“There’s so many things that happen at school that are important for the appropriate growth and development of children that if we can get them back into the classroom, we want to get them back in the classroom,’’ she said.
The question about safety has spilled over into local schools.
In Queen Creek Unified School District, for example, some teachers have resigned since the school board voted 4-1 to reopen earlier this week. Ducey made it clear he’s not siding with them.
“I support the principals, I support the superintendents and I support the parents,’’ he said when asked about the situation.
“There’s a lot of teachers that can’t wait to get to the front of the classroom,’’ he added.
On the subject of businesses, the governor brushed aside a series of lawsuits that have been filed against him accusing him of acting illegally.
“My reaction is, get in line, all right?’’ he said.
“We’re doing everything we can to protect people in this state, to protect the most vulnerable through a public health emergency and an economic disruption,’’ Ducey said. “And we’ll continue to do it.’’
But the governor appeared to have no clear explanation of why he has allowed pools, water slides and splash parks attached to resorts to reopen while free-standing facilities remain shuttered.