There are two key components to reopening school buildings for any type of in-person instruction, whether for all students or just some as part of a hybrid model. The first has to do with individual safety plans schools are putting in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff. The second is the level of spread occurring within the community, which is addressed in school reopening benchmarks and an associated dashboard released on August 6 by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) in partnership with the Arizona Department of Education (ADE). Both are equally important in determining when it is safe to reopen a school building.
It is important to note that the ADHS benchmarks are not intended to be absolutes, but rather considerations for districts and schools. The benchmarks are to be used in consultation with local health departments and in conjunction with ADE’s Roadmap for Reopening Schools, which is summarized here. Ultimately, decisions about school reopening plans will continue to be made by each individual school district or charter school operator.
Individual school reopening plans must:
- Follow applicable local and state orders
- Account for four scenarios:
- Traditional – All students in physical buildings
- Hybrid – Some students in physical buildings and some students distance learning
- Virtual – All students distance learning with onsite support services
- Intermittent – Intermittent distance learning based on emergency closures as defined by
state and local health departments
- Consider local health department data as outlined by the ADHS
- Be adopted by the school district governing board or charter school and posted to the school’s website
ADHS School Opening Benchmarks and Associated Data Dashboard
COVID-19 Community Spread Levels
Community spread levels essentially speak to the likelihood of the COVID-19 virus spreading throughout a community based on certain benchmarks. The ADHS considered the CDC definitions for community spread when putting together their school reopening benchmarks:
Minimal community spread: Evidence of isolated cases or limited community transmission, case investigations underway; no evidence of exposure in large communal setting
Moderate Community Spread: Sustained transmission with high likelihood or confirmed exposure within communal settings and potential for rapid increase in cases
Substantial Community Spread: Large scale, controlled community transmission, including communal settings (e.g., schools, workplaces)
The ADHS further defines community spread levels with the thresholds outlined below. These thresholds are consistent with the national standards set by the Coronavirus Task Force.
School Reopening Benchmarks
Specifically, the ADHS recommends the following benchmarks be met prior to offering any in-person learning:
- A two week decline in the number of cases or two weeks with new case rates below 100 per 100,000. The source of this data is ADHS MEDSIS Confirmed and Probable Cases and is available by county.
- Two weeks with percent positivity less than 7 percent. The source of this data is ADHS Electronic Laboratory Data and is available by county.
- Two weeks with hospital visits due to COVID-like illness below 10 percent. The source of this data is the BioSense Syndromic Surveillance Platform and data is available by BioSense regions (Northern: Apache, Coconino, Navajo, Yavapai counties; Central: Gila, Maricopa, Pinal counties; Southeastern: Cochise, Graham, Greenlee, Pima, Santa Cruz counties; Western: La Paz, Mohave, Yuma counties)
- In addition, the local health department may modify a specific benchmark.
Using Benchmarks in Combination with Community Spread Definitions
Going back to the four scenarios each school is required to prepare, schools in counties with even one of the three benchmarks in the “red” should not reopen and instead continue with virtual learning. Schools with two benchmarks in the “green” and one in “yellow,” for example, might consider moving to a hybrid model of learning. Schools with all three benchmarks in the “green” should feel comfortable returning to a traditional model with all students learning in-person.
The following table combines levels of community spread with the mitigation strategies outlined in ADE’s Roadmap to Reopen Schools. Note: This is not a comprehensive list.
Where Things Stand Today
Using the benchmarks and the latest available data, ADHS and ADE made it clear that they do NOT believe it is currently safe to open schools in any county.
The ADHS dashboard will be updated every Thursday for the data covering the two-week period ending 12 days earlier. It can be found here by scrolling to the middle of the webpage. The dashboard looks like this:
The ADHS school reopening benchmarks include a variety of supplemental information and resources, including: What to Do When Someone on Site has COVID-19 Symptoms, Guidance on Quarantining Classes or Closing School Buildings, an infographic showing what a new school day might look like, what social distancing looks like, and much more.