PHOENIX — With more than a dozen school districts preparing to expand or begin in-person learning over the next month, State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said Wednesday during a press conference that schools can reopen safely, if proper mitigations are in place.
"Now is the time to start rebuilding and regaining the trust of our families, teachers and students," said Hoffman
It's been nearly one year since schools first went remote because of the coronavirus. The tone of Wednesday's press conference was a clear shift toward reopening schools with three main factors fueling that change. Access to the vaccine, decreasing COVID numbers, and research showing schools can reopen with safety protocols in place.
Hoffman highlighted resources and reasons for schools to reopen safely but stopped short of issuing any universal timelines, stressing that local context matters.
"There will be parts of the state that are more ready for in-person instruction than other parts of the state," said Hoffman.
She also referenced the CDC's updated guidance for schools. Masks and physical distancing are key components of their recommendations. However, Arizona's ongoing teacher shortage and overcrowded classrooms could make it difficult, if not impossible, for some districts to reach that recommended distancing.
"There will be schools and classrooms where six feet is not possible and making sure we're really taking that seriously," said Hoffman.
Ylenia Aguilar is president of the Osborn School District Governing Board. Students and staff there are preparing to return to campus next month for the first time in one year.
"We're at 90 percent of our entire staff has been vaccinated," said Aguilar.
Still, concerns remain about the spread of COVID in the classroom. Dr. Jason Vargas, president of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says evidence shows layering mitigation measures can greatly reduce transmission for both students and teachers.
"The risk actually in the schools, could actually be lower than in the community," said Vargas.
With state testing set to move forward in April, Hoffman says her department is working closely with federal and local education leaders to give districts as much flexibility as possible, to ease any pressure districts may feel to get students back on campus.
"We've reduced the test length, we've expanded the testing window," said Hoffman. "It's really critical to know how our kids are doing."