School corridor interior. 3d illustration

State health officials have laid out a three-part test for when they say it is safe for schools to reopen, in full or in part.

In essence, the guidelines say it will be safe to again have kids in the classroom when:

• Fewer than 7 percent of area residents tested for COVID-19 test positive for the virus;

• The number of people showing up at local hospitals with COVID-like symptoms is less than 10 percent of all visits;

• A rate of infection drops below 100 cases for every 100,000 residents.

Exceeding even one of those, according to state Health Director Cara Christ, indicates that schools should remain shuttered.

But even that last category comes with an escape clause of sorts. Schools could still meet that specific benchmark if there has been a decline in the weekly average in the number of cases for two consecutive weeks, even if the infection rate tops 100 per 100,000.

Arizona is not there yet.

“We think it’s going to be several weeks before any county meets those benchmarks,’’ said state Health Director Cara Christ. “But we do see it trending down within the next month.’’

And Marcy Flanagan, executive director of the county Department of Public Health, said it was unlikely campuses could reopen by next week.

Flanagan said county health officials have been meeting with a work group of top administrators from public and private schools to discuss data-driven benchmarks rather than a specific date for reopening campuses.

“Given the benchmarks  discussed with our work group and benchmarks that we believe a DHS may consider,” Flanagan said, “We are not currently meeting those benchmarks to have our schools fully reopen and go back to in-person teacher-led classes.

“I wouldn’t provide a date certain” for reopening, she said, but rather would look at benchmarks – such as the level of reported new virus cases.

Christ had no predictions either. 

She emphasized these decisions generally are going to be made on a county-by-county level, meaning kids could be back in school in one county while those in the adjacent one have only online learning.

Flanagan said the county will soon be releasing a new COVID-19 breakdown that will show positive cases by various geographical areas, including ZIP codes and school districts.

The question now is whether any of the more than 200 traditional school districts and charter schools actually will follow the guidelines.

Nothing in the standards is mandatory. And local school officials are free to reopen even while infections rates are high – or remain closed even past the point when the risk is minimal.

Several districts already having announced they don’t intend to have in-person classes until the middle of October – including Chandler Unified and Tempe Union.

“There are local circumstances that schools may choose to either open earlier or stay closed longer,’’ Christ said. “It really is left up to that local education agency in consultation with their local public health.’’

But state schools chief Kathy Hoffman is discouraging too much individual choice.

“Schools should adhere to these benchmarks,’’ she said. “And school boards should be held accountable by their community members to follow the public health recommendations.’’

“I fully support these metrics,’’ she said. “It gives us a goalpost of where we need to see the numbers.’’

The standards actually are divided into three categories.

First – and most severe – are conditions that the health department say creates conditions for “substantial community spread.’’

Those are the numbers outlined in the basic three-part standard. In those cases, any area unable to meet all three criteria should keep their schools closed and all instruction should be online.

A second category involves lower rates of infection and positive test results.

In those cases, the standards say that schools can reopen in limited fashion for “hybrid’’ education. That could involve students in school part of the day and online learning the rest of the day, or even having students attend on alternate days.

But there still are restrictions, including not just the physical distancing that the health department wants – six feet between desks – but also allowing for screening individual students for symptoms, closing communal spaces like cafeterias and mandatory face coverings.

It is only when the infection rate drops below 10 cases per 100,000 residents, fewer than 5 percent of tests come back positive, and fewer than 5 percent of hospital visits are for COVID-like symptoms that it is considered safe to go back to traditional instruction.

But even then, the health department protocols call for enhanced cleaning, working with students on hand hygiene and “proper respiratory etiquette,’’ monitoring absenteeism and proper ventilation of classrooms and school buses.

That last category, Christ acknowledged, presents some unique challenges in newer buildings where windows do not open. But she said there are ways of tweaking the ventilation system to get more fresh air into the system. 

One big issue is that the executive order issued by Gov. Doug Ducey requires schools to open their doors by Aug. 17 for students who need somewhere to go.

Hoffman said that’s mainly designed as a “safety net’’ for students with special needs, things like special education students and counseling services with kids with mental health needs. She also said some districts intend to offer space for children of “essential workers.’’

But she conceded that, under federal laws, schools which are not yet offering full-time or hybrid classes will not be able to turn away any child who shows up at their door – even if they do not fall into one of the eligible categories.

Hoffman said, though, that schools need not provide that space in traditional classrooms. She said some districts are working with local Y’s and Boys and Girls Clubs to provide somewhere safe, complete with computers so that these students still can participate in online learning.

“It will not be babysitting,’’ she said.

Christ said, “We know that some parents are not going to be comfortable sending their kids back until there’s a vaccine or until there’s minimal spread.”

“We do feel it’s important to get kids back into the classroom,’’ she added.

There is a potential complicating factor.

“Despite schools’ best efforts to retain their teachers and find ways for them to feel comfortable for them to teach in this incredibly challenging environment and challenging times, there are increased rates of teachers resigning,’’ Hoffman said. 

And all this, Hoffman said, comes on top of what’s already a “very severe shortage’’ of qualified teachers in the classroom.