Arizona's top school leader said Thursday she did not ask the state health department to make changes to the COVID-19 school benchmarks. During a news conference earlier in the day, Governor Doug Ducey said the state had consulted education leaders, including Kathy Hoffman, before making the changes.
Last week, ADHS quietly changed a part of the document schools have been using as guidance on whether to have in-person or virtual learning. It now says students should return to virtual learning when all three benchmarks are in the substantial spread category.
Those benchmarks include the number of cases per 100,00 people, percent positivity and COVID-like illness in area hospitals. The guidance initially issued in August said schools should go back to virtual learning if they had one or more benchmarks in the substantial spread category for two weeks.
The change caught many school leaders off guard.
"This was done with education leaders, the superintendent of public instruction, and public health officials," said Ducey when asked why the state made the changes.
"Everything that's been done inside our schools has been done in coordination and cooperation with public education leaders and public health officials and what you're referring to was actually done at their request," he said.
Dr. Cara Christ said ADHS has been holding weekly meetings with the schools reopening workgroup, made of local health leaders and the Department of Education.
"During these conversations, our partners expressed concerns about the instability that would occur if recommendations to move back to virtual learning were based on a change in a single benchmark, especially in smaller rural counties," said Christ.
A spokesperson for the Department of Education acknowledged that staff members were in those meetings and were alerted the change was made, but say they had no say in the decision.
During an interview on "Gaydos & Chad" from our news partners at KTAR 92.3 FM, Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said the department did not recommend or request the changes, and she was not consulted on whether the changes were needed.
"I did not recommend to change the benchmarks and that to me making a change, especially right now when the numbers are spiking-- and all the circumstances-- our schools are already going through much, I do think further clarification is warranted," Hoffman said. "I was on a call with teachers last night that this is putting them in harm's way that their safety was not a priority. By making this change and that the impression our school leaders received is that they were left in the dark. The message they received is a message to not close even if there's substantial risk and high community spread of COVID that they feel this is an added pressure to keep their doors open for in-person instruction."
Others like the Arizona School Boards Association, Arizona Education Association and superintendents from Mesa public schools and Scottsdale Unified told ABC15 they were surprised by the change.