marcie hutchinson

Marcie Hutchinson

More than 80 members of school boards across Arizona – including two from Mesa Public Schools – have called on state officials to delay opening campuses until at least Oct. 1.

Mesa Governing Board members Marcie Hutchinson and Kiana Maria Sears are among those who have signed a letter to Gov. Doug Ducey, Superintendent of Instruction Kathy Hoffman and the State Legislature. Board members from Chandler Unified, Higley Unified, Tempe Union and Kyrene are also among those who signed the letter.

“Positive cases in Arizona are trending upward, not downward,” the letter states. “We cannot reopen our schools for on-site learning until we experience a downward trajectory of documented cases within a 14-day period.” 

The letter, which does not represent official board positions but rather the feelings of individuals on them, makes a series of other requests beyond keeping campuses closed until Oct. 1.

Ducey has delayed the opening of campuses until Aug. 17 – a date he reiterated last week as “aspirational” rather than set in stone.

Mesa Public Schools will reopen with all-online instruction for all grades Aug. 4.

The letter asks the state officials to set a COVID-19 case data point for districts to use in determining when to reopen campuses and also asks for statewide safety protocols.

It also seeks equal per-pupil funding for both online and in-class students; a waiver of the 180-day instruction requirement; suspension of standardized state assessment tests for the school year with allowance for districts to use their own student-performance measurements; and permission to distribute breakfasts and lunches even when campuses are closed. 

 “Let administrators and teachers plan for and excel at teaching the first quarter remotely,” the letter states. 

In their request for suspending state achievement tests, the board members wrote:

“We ask that our focus this academic year be offering high-quality remote-learning and a measured return to safe in-person classes, rather than on reaching higher levels of academic success as measured by a single assessment.”

It also complained the state penalizes school districts for offering only remote learning by providing a lower per-pupil reimbursement than it does for in-classroom students.

The letter was sent within days of stepped-up pressure by President Trump, members of his cabinet and other leading Republicans, who demanded that schools reopen for in-class learning when their school year officially begins.

U.S. Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, led a group of Republican lawmakers on July 9 who demanded that schools reopen as usual in the fall, stating, “It would be more harmful to keep children locked out of schools and less harmful and less risky for children to go back to schools.”

During a press conference the same day, Gov. Doug Ducey said he won’t play politics in deciding when campuses can reopen.

And on the same day of his press conference, Scottsdale Unified became the first district in Arizona to announce it won’t reopen their schools before Sept. 8.

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also said on July 9 that while she wants to get students back in the classroom, “we cannot ignore the severity of COVID-19 in our state and how that impacts adults and children alike in our school communities.”

Speakers at the event organized by the House Freedom Caucus, which Biggs chairs, called the CDC guidelines “ridiculous” and “extremely harmful” for students’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

They repeatedly noted that being kept out of school is bad for children’s emotional health and that COVID-19 is neither dangerous to children nor easily spread by them.

Meanwhile, Snowflake Republican Sylvia Allen, who chairs the State Senate Education Committee, told Cronkite News she doubts Ducey has the power to delay the reopening of campuses.

“It is time to stop, call a special session, and get back to the constitutional operations of our state,” Allen said.

Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, a teacher and chair of the House Education Committee, doubts that a special legislative session is feasible and she worries how many legislators would actually show up because of COVID-19 concerns and obligations to family members who may be sick or at risk.

“Calling a special session would end up with a bunch of people running in different directions, which is not going to help,” Udall said. “I don’t think we have enough consensus to get anything done.”

Despite such reservations, Udall said, she “would love” to hold a special session to address education issues. However, she and Allen both support giving schools the authority to delay the start of in-person classes. 

Allen said she recently worked on her own legislation that would have provided, among other items, “local control and flexibility for schools opening and determination of health protocols.”

Hoffman pointed to students with medical conditions and many others in schools – “instructional aides, librarians, bus drivers, nutrition workers and more” – who could be put at risk.

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