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Ducey issues order for Arizona schools to reopen this month

PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued an executive order Wednesday for students and teachers to return to school later this month.

“The science is clear: it’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap,” Ducey said in a statement.

Schools must return to in-person learning by March 15 or after their spring break. The only exceptions will be middle and high schools in counties where COVID-19 transmission rates are considered high.

The Republican governor said he made his decision after consulting with public school leaders and looking at guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Going by CDC metrics, a dozen of Arizona’s 15 counties have reached stages where they are eligible to open campuses. That includes the two largest counties, Maricopa and Pima.

A majority of schools in the state are already offering in-person learning, Ducey said. He credits the move to reopen most other schools to prioritizing teachers for COVID-19 vaccines. Many teachers have already received a second vaccine dose, he added.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman expressed concern about the governor’s timeline. The Democrat said the March 15 date could be challenging for schools that may be following a different schedule based on circumstances in their community.

“As a state, we should be collaborating to provide as much preparation and planning time as possible ahead of significant changes to school operations,” Hoffman said in a statement. “To achieve stability for our school communities, it’s necessary to provide them with adequate time to inform and ready their staff, students and families.”

The order does not affect tribal nations who may still want to enforce stay-at-home orders, Hoffman added.

The president of the Arizona Education Association, a teachers union, accused Ducey of taking credit away from school administrators and teachers who have been working toward reopening. Joe Thomas said the state needs to commit more funding if it wants schools to stay open and prevent outbreaks.

“The science also says that community spread is key to keeping our schools safe, yet Gov. Ducey has chosen to focus on reopening schools without any kind of measures to mitigate community spread such as a statewide mask mandate,” Thomas said in a statement.

The news comes as Arizona health officials reported 1,284 new COVID-19 cases and 29 deaths Wednesday. That brings the total numbers to 819,954 cases and 16,089 deaths.

The state also opened its fourth mass vaccination site at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. All state-run vaccination sites are transitioning to vaccinating people by age group and will now allow people 55 or older to make an appointment.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the state Department of Health Services, said data shows that age plays a huge role when it comes to the risk of a COVID-19 infection.

“When we looked at 55 and above, that’s responsible for 65% of our hospitalizations and 90% of all deaths in Arizona,” Christ said while visiting the college vaccination site.

In other developments:

— Arizona will distribute an additional $8.2 million in federal pandemic relief funding to help with homelessness. The funds will be split across 31 organizations, according to the state Department of Economic Security. The money will go toward emergency shelters and helping people stay in their homes or obtain replacement housing.

— A team of 30 U.S. Air Force medical personnel arrived at Kingman Regional Medical Center in northwestern Arizona to provide staffing support during the pandemic, the Kingman Daily Miner reported. In January, the hospital had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for additional nurses and respiratory therapists.