More school districts buck state COVID-19 metrics in favor of fully reopening

Most metro Phoenix school districts are at a “yellow light” on the road to reopening schools for in-person instruction.  

Maricopa County uses three stoplight colors to categorize districts in its map using local COVID-19 data to help guide decisions to reopen for face-to-face instruction.

Districts shaded in green meet criteria to open. Districts in red do not.

The districts in yellow straddle both of those realities: COVID-19 is at a level widespread enough that health officials recommend schools open in a “hybrid model,” where students alternate what days they attend school in-person, leaving campuses less crowded.

For students, this means yet another version of school to adjust to — another version of school that doesn’t look like it did in 2019. 

More than 30 districts in Maricopa County are in the yellow.

But a hybrid model is not executed easily. Demand for in-person school from parents is rising as they see more schools open their doors. And schools don’t have to follow the benchmarks. 

Debates over reopening continue, but the arguments are evolving over whether schools should try a hybrid learning model or speed up their timeline to open classrooms.

More school districts are bucking the state metrics in favor of fully reopening, to the chagrin of some families and educators.

“They’re not following the guidelines,” Melissa Lewis-Duarte, a parent in the Scottsdale Unified School District, said. “This is very risky. Just because some people wanted to take this calculated risk, doesn’t mean that they get to take it for the whole community.” 

Districts in wealthier areas of metro Phoenix appear to be opening at a faster pace than districts in low-income areas. Many low-income districts are taking a more cautious approach to reopening — Phoenix Union High School District, in central Phoenix, has already decided to remain closed through the end of 2020. 

Abandoning hybrid models

Lewis-Duarte has three kids in Scottsdale Unified. County data shows COVID-19 spread in the district’s boundaries is moderate, a circumstance where the state recommends hybrid learning. 

Scottsdale considered a hybrid plan, then abandoned it after a survey showed a small fraction of parents supported the plan. Instead, the district is reopening in stages: Students in younger grades are returning to campus this week, while older students will return in the coming weeks.

District officials said survey results showed a community divided, necessitating a plan that brought students back to campus. They emphasized that they are still basing decisions off the state metrics.

“Not everybody’s going to get everything they want, but more kids will get what they need,” Scottsdale Superintendent Scott Menzel said.

The phased-in approach leaves fewer students on campus, but some parents believe it doesn’t follow the state recommendations. Lewis-Duarte said the decision to reopen in this fashion disregards the advice from state health officials and bows to pressure from other parents to reopen fully.

“They were no longer using data and their decision, they were no longer considering what was safe, and what was recommended by the health officials,” she said. 

The family opted to continue with distance learning, but the choice came with an unexpected, and distressing, hitch: One of her kids was unable to continue with the same teacher.

Gilbert Public Schools, similarly, is in hybrid territory. The district spent two weeks in a hybrid model, where students alternated their days on-campus, then fully reopened on Sept. 21, contrary to the state health recommendations.

In a letter to families sent Sept. 15, district officials acknowledged that Gilbert had actually seen a “slight uptick” in COVID numbers, but wrote that the district would still go forward with the plans to fully reopen. 

Parents have the options to keep their kids at home. But Marya Langford, a parent of two students at Highland High School, said the online option robs her son, a senior, of advanced classes, which will help him earn a special degree. 

“I never thought I’d have to choose between my family’s health and my child’s education,” she said. “I just trusted that there was a line that our leaders would not cross and now that’s happened.” 

Some urgency to reopen 

A different chorus of parents is arguing that schools need to pick up the pace.

The wait to reopen has been challenging for Lisa Davis, a Paradise Valley Unified parent who said she her second-grade daughter has fallen behind academically. As a working parent, it’s difficult to manage the demands of online school with the demands of her job. 

“The well-being of my children and my family … is outweighing the risk of the virus,” she said.

Under the state’s metrics, Paradise Valley could open now for hybrid learning, because virus spread is moderate.

But in August, the district adopted its own, more cautious, health benchmarks for reopening — spread would need to be what the state categorized as minimal for PV schools to reopen in-person, according to a note sent to families Aug. 26. An area is experiencing minimal spread when the infection rate is 5% or less for two consecutive weeks and when there are less than 10 cases per 100,000 people for two weeks.

Paradise Valley’s school board reversed course on Sept. 18 and adjusted its reopening criteria to metrics that would allow the district to reopen for in-person school sooner. The district already meets the new metrics: The area is seeing fewer than 50 cases per 100,000 and the infection rate has dipped below 5%. 

Starting Oct. 8, Paradise Valley students will return to school if the community continues to meet the benchmarks. Like Scottsdale, the district is taking a phased-in approach, allowing younger students on-campus first, then letting older students come in-person the following weeks.

During the Sept. 18 meeting, board President Anne Greenberg said she supports reopening if everyone follows strict safety protocols.

“Someday research is going to give us a vaccine… and we will be able to fully return to the school settings we love, but we are not there and we won’t be there for awhile,” she said.

Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @LilyAlta.

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