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PHOENIX — Pinal County met the recommended benchmarks for both in-person school learning and reopening some businesses, state health officials announced Thursday morning.

Reflecting the continuing decline of COVID-19’s community spread across much of Arizona, Pinal is among eight counties that have now met the recommended benchmarks in the Arizona Department of Health Services Guidance for Safely Returning to In-Person Instruction for schools to resume a hybrid learning model combining in-person and online learning. Two other counties, Greenlee and La Paz, have met the benchmarks recommended to resume full in-person instruction.

Arizona DHS now also lists Pinal County as a "moderate" risk for the spread of COVID-19, down from "substantial." This means businesses that have thus far been prohibited from reopening can now do so as long as they agree to follow safety guidelines set by the state. These businesses include bars, gyms, theaters and water parks.

This comes a week after Pinal school and government officials were disappointed the county did not reach those benchmarks. It had been thought just the day prior to the weekly update that Pinal would have done enough, but surges in Florence and later Eloy appeared to have left the whole county just short.

The problem facing the county last week was a positive rate that was just over the 7% threshold it needed to cross to get downgraded to moderate. With the latest update, Pinal is now at 5.9%.

Gyms and fitness centers can now open at 25% capacity, bars that serve dine-in food at 50%, indoor theaters at 50% and water parks at 50%. Bars and night clubs that are not converted into restaurants must remain closed until the positivity rate gets below 3%.

The school benchmarks were established per Gov. Doug Ducey’s June 23 executive order, Arizona: Open for Learning, and in conjunction with the Roadmap for Reopening Schools developed by the Arizona Department of Education led by Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and school leaders to gradually and responsibly reopen schools during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Thursday's update to the ADHS Schools Dashboard the following counties have joined Apache and Yavapai in meeting the state benchmarks for starting in-person learning through a hybrid model: Cochise, Coconino, Maricopa, Navajo, Pima as well as Pinal.

Upon reaching these benchmarks, ADHS recommends that schools can consider moving from virtual instruction to a combination of virtual and in-person learning while implementing mitigation measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The benchmarks leave the flexibility of when and how to resume in-person instruction to school leaders and encourage consultation with county health departments as the best source of information on local conditions. Some county health departments have recommended more stringent guidance based on local transmission.

“The primary goal is to keep our children, staff and their families safe and healthy throughout this school year,” said Hoffman. “I urge every member of Arizona’s school communities to proceed with caution and refer to the Roadmap for Reopening Schools for guidance as we begin the return to in-person learning across our state.”

The Roadmap for Reopening Schools calls for these stringent requirements to minimize the spread of COVID-19, including:

  • The use of masks during hybrid in-person instruction for all staff and students over 5 years old,
  • Physical distancing of students,
  • Cohorting of classrooms,
  • Enhanced cleaning and disinfection,
  • Closing of communal spaces, and
  • Symptom screening.

Fewer mitigation steps are required for schools in counties in the minimal category. A recent ADHS emergency order requires schools to report COVID-19 outbreaks to their county health departments and keep students, teachers, staff, and parents and guardians regularly apprised of their efforts.

In order to ensure every student and staff member has access to face masks, ADHS partnered with Hanes to provide five free cloth masks to Arizona school staff and families. To get free masks shipped to your home or school, you can visit azhealth.gov/ordermasks.

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