PHOENIX — Arizona schools won’t be required to put kids back into classrooms next month.
But they will be required to make some sort of on-site learning available for parents who want it.
On Thursday, Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools chief Kathy Hoffman abandoned what had been an Aug. 17 “aspirational’’ date to begin offering in-classroom education. And they did not replace it with any new target.
“It’s not reasonable to set a date,’’ Hoffman said. In fact, she said she doubts that any school would be ready to actually begin classroom instruction by that original target date.
Instead, the new executive order signed by the governor directs school boards and charter school operators to begin some sort of operations — even if just online — on what would have been their regular start date.
In the meantime, the Department of Health Services is supposed to come up with “public health benchmarks’’ by Aug. 7 school officials will be required to consider when determining whether to open classrooms. But it will remain up to each entity to determine when they are ready for in-person learning.
That can mean continuing with online and remote instruction for as long as the school officials believe is necessary.
But requirements remain.
The biggest is that these districts must provide somewhere for students to go.
These could be youngsters whose parents work as well as students who do not have access to computers at home. And the governor has a particular focus on “at risk’’ children from low-income households, special education students and those who go to school with limited English proficiency.
There are other conditions, including requirements for “social distancing’’ and for all adults and most students to wear masks.
But there’s also a carrot with all this: a 5% boost in state aid.
Under normal circumstances, the state pays only 95 percent of normal aid for students who are being taught only online. That means only about $5,000 per student versus $5,300, the average figure for traditional public schools.
This plan erases that gap.
But it also would provide an identical bonus to qualifying school districts who agree to actually put youngsters into seats. They will get 105% of state aid, or an extra $265.
Aides to the governor pegged the cost to the state at about $370 million if all school districts meet the qualifications. Those dollars would come from the state’s share of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
The decision to allow schools to operate online indefinitely comes against the backdrop of a push by President Trump to force schools to start in-classroom teaching. Ducey said that sentiment is not necessarily a bad thing.
“I think that having a kid in a classroom is a great thing,’’ he said. What this policy does, the governor said, is leave the decisions to local elected officials and, ultimately, to parents who may decide that, even in places where schools are open, that’s not the right choice.
“In this situation, somebody that’s got an underlying health condition or weakened immunity, we would never force them to do something that would be against their safety,’’ Ducey said. “And we would want to provide options for them.’’
There’s something else, though.
State Health Director Cara Christ said that having hundreds of thousands of children who have been sheltering at home now for months suddenly put back into classrooms is likely to result in an increase in COVID-19 cases. But she said that’s not as alarming as it might seem — at least for children in lower grades.
“What the data is currently showing is that kids under 10 don’t transmit COVID as effectively as adults do,’’ Christ said. “But we will continue to monitor and there will be benchmarks that we will look at to determine if it does look like it’s increasing.’’
And the option remains with school officials who have opened up for in-classroom instruction to drop that and go back to online and remote learning.