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Arizona School, Business Leaders Concerned About Spread Of COVID-19

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, November 30, 2020 - 12:35pm
Updated: Monday, November 30, 2020 - 12:36pm

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LAUREN GILGER: As COVID-19 cases spike in our state, public health leaders, some Arizona mayors and many education leaders have called on Gov. Doug Ducey to do more to stop the spread of the virus. Earlier this month, the governor announced an additional mask mandate in schools. But State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman says it's not enough. And if things continue on this path, she expects schools that haven't already will have to return to remote learning again soon. But at the same time, businesses remain open. Unlike in some other states, the governor has not announced new restrictions on things like indoor dining, bars or clubs. Ducey has stressed the need to keep people employed on the adverse health — employed and the adverse health consequences that can occur when people fall behind financially. So let's hear now from stakeholders on both sides of this spectrum — schools and businesses. We begin with Superintendent Hoffman. As we heard from Maricopa County Public Health Director Marcy Flanagan earlier in The Show, schools have not been at the root of the spread. I spoke with her more about this. And like Flanagan, Hoffman told me schools are not the culprit when it comes to spread.

Kathy Hoffman
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Kathy Hoffman at a news conference on July 23, 2020.

KATHY HOFFMAN: When I've spoken with our school leaders and with the public health officials, what we hear is that the positive cases in our school, whether that's a teacher or a student, are, they're typically more isolated cases, meaning they're coming from one household. Or there could be a couple of different cases from different households coming into the school community, but that the transmission of COVID-19 within our schools is almost nonexistent. That our schools have actually a very safe mitigation strategies in place. We have the requirement of masks for all K-12 schools, and our schools are doing everything they can to socially distance and to not mix different groups from different cohorts or different classrooms. So we are not seeing any significant spread of COVID-19 in our schools.

GILGER: So what kind of activities do you attribute this spike then to? Like, is this about what families are doing outside of school essentially and bringing in?

HOFFMAN: That is what we are hearing. And of course, a lot of this is anecdotal, but Halloween was one instance where we had a lot of families and kids having parties — Halloween parties — outside of school, where then about a week later, the principals were telling me that they were seeing what they considered to be the Halloween spike of positive cases.

GILGER: So let's talk a little bit about why that might be. Like, in Europe when we saw the spike in cases happen a little bit before we saw it here, we saw governments respond by closing businesses, not schools. Why do you think the conversation seems to be the other way around here?

HOFFMAN: Well, I'm extremely disappointed that that seems to be what we're left with here in Arizona, is where, while, you know, our state has said that schools are essential, that they should be the last to close, our schools are left with no choice when community spread so significantly high that it comes to a point where the school cannot continue because of the number of positive cases and our schools do not operate in a bubble. And so I do wish we would have stronger state action and that are looking at some of our businesses like restaurants and bars. Also looking at sports is another area where I still think we have further conversations to be had. But the impact of the businesses on our schools is, is apparent. That again, they're, they're interconnected. And it's a matter of how can we keep the community spread down such that we can keep our schools open, and our state has not accomplished that.

GILGER: So you, you have said before on The Show — and I'm sure you'll say it again here — you anticipate, at this point, if this rate of spread continues, that we will be going back to all remote learning at some point. And many schools that are already heading in that direction.

HOFFMAN: Yes, we have already seen, I would say probably the majority of school districts in Phoenix have already returned to remote learning. Same with Tucson. So it is more of our urban areas where we're seeing that transition back to virtual learning. In our rural communities, that is kind of more case by case. Our tribal nation communities have been in remote distance learning since March for, by and large, almost all of them. But we are going to continue to see that impact of our schools having to return to remote learning when they do have local outbreaks.

GILGER: So let's talk about the consequences of that. We often have conversations about shutdowns and what that does to people's jobs, to people's livelihoods, to the economy. What happens, though, on the other end of that, when you're talking about students and the effect on them of not being able to be around other kids or in the classroom sitting at a computer all day at home?

HOFFMAN: There have been significant impacts on our students as well as our teachers' mental health during this pandemic for, for a whole host of reasons, whether that's due to the isolation of being at home and, and not having the peer-to-peer, teacher-to-peer, teacher-to-student interactions. Our schools provide so many different wraparound services and in addition to the academics. So whether that's the school counselor or social worker who, who is helping to provide those services or the meals have, you know, children having access to breakfast and lunch at their school. It has been a huge challenge for our schools to be able to provide those same types of services at the same levels as they were. You know, it's just, it's completely different when children are in the classroom and where you can have that face-to-face interaction and conversation rather than virtual, where we actually still have a significant number of students who have not connected with their schools. And where there are students that we don't, don't know where they are because they have not reconnected with their school.

GILGER: So I wonder, though, do you think this has to be sort of an either or. Is this a business community versus schools kind of shutdown situation, or do you think it could be done where everything can stay open?

HOFFMAN: I'd like to explore seeing how it can be done. You know, I hate to see that it's in any way the education sector versus the business sector. So I would like to explore options where, for example, just looking at our restaurants, I've seen in other states where they are now takeout only. So it's not that we've closed the restaurant, but we've just changed the type of business delivery model such that there's the way to reduce the transmission of COVID. So I don't think it needs to be an either or. But, but unfortunately, since we are not being as proactive as I would like Arizona to be, I'm, I'm concerned that we're getting to a place where it's going to have to be more reactive. And, and that really concerns me as well.

GILGER: All right. Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman joining us to talk more about this. Kathy, thank you so much for coming on.

HOFFMAN: Thank you for having me.

GILGER: Now let's turn to Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. He has joined calls for stronger public health measures to combat the virus. But as a leader in the local business environment, we wanted to know how he sees the roles — the role of businesses in curbing the spread. Here is our conversation, beginning with where we are now. How has this latest spike of COVID-19 in our communities affected our local economy so far? Is it anywhere near as bad as it was back in the summer for businesses quite yet?

Todd Sanders
Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce
Todd Sanders

TODD SANDERS: Anecdotally, I can tell you that we're not seeing the kind of drop that we saw earlier in the spring. We also have a consumer confidence index. And so between September and October, the numbers that we saw in terms of consumer confidence tended to trend up above where we were in March. So as far as those numbers are concerned, we're not seeing that yet. But clearly we're watching the spike in cases that we're seeing today.

GILGER: OK, so in terms of mitigating the effects of this virus and sort of fears that if the virus gets as bad as it did in the summer, we will see economic effects of that as well, what do you think the state should be doing? Do you think we should be more aggressive in mitigation measures?

SANDERS: Well, I can tell you that from the business community standpoint, I think businesses, by and large — and that doesn't mean that there aren't the odd business out there that's not doing the right thing — understand that in order to stay open and continue moving forward as far as economic recovery, we have to do everything we can to keep people healthy. And that includes everything from masks when people come in to social distancing to making sure that you have capacity limits. So I think as far as that's concerned, there's a broad recognition. And when I think about what's driving this, I think there's this natural tendency to think about sort of a silver bullet, like there's just one thing. And what we've seen and what we've learned is that it's really a social contract between all of us, meaning consumers, business owners, the governor, legislators, city council folks. And that is that we all have to sort of do our part because otherwise you start to have these things unravel. And I think now what we're seeing is this fatigue and everyone's tired. And what you're seeing in small group gatherings where people are, "Well, we're, we're, we think everybody's OK" and it's a small group and all of a sudden you have an event. And that's really the big concern right now.

GILGER: So I just spoke with Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman about the the root of some of this and whether or not it seems to be in schools. And it doesn't seem to be the case that schools are sort of the nexus of a lot of these spreading events, as you say, as these smaller things. Do you know, on the business end of it, what the research looks like? Are businesses the places where a lot of these, these spreading events are happening, or is that not the case either?

SANDERS: Well, it's obviously still early days, but it is interesting. I think a lot of people were concerned with what schools were going to look like. And it is pleasant news to see that really where we're seeing rather safe places of as far as schools are concerned. Businesses, I think the same thing. There is a recognition that they have to do everything they can to keep their customers safe. So, so, again, it really does point to fatigue.

GILGER: So then when it comes to businesses, at this moment, being allowed to stay open while because of the community spread, we're seeing schools, many of them having to return to remote learning, closing their in-person classes; do you think one should be prioritized over the other here? Do you think one is being prioritized over the other?

SANDERS: Right. Now, I go back to my silver bullet analogy. I think, I think we have to look at this holistically. And certainly I think employers have learned a lot and we have learned a lot at our organization. We used to have — we used to telecommute one day a week. We recognize we can do that. We've done it since March. And so the ability to be virtual and we're there where folks are coming in, to, to be flexible with employees. And businesses have learned to do this because there's a recognition that if your, your kids are all of a sudden not in class, you've got to be able to make sure that you're allowing them to, to be home to take care of those kids and, and to be flexible with them in those cases. So I think that instead of looking at this as a one versus another, a black and white like the whole world tends to be these days, you have to look at it holistically.

GILGER: So, so at this point, it sounds like you're not saying that that businesses need to do more. There may be a bad actor here and there, but you would not advocate for tighter restrictions on what's happening in businesses.

SANDERS: It's a social contract. You know, there's no question that we shut everything down and everyone stayed home — that, that clearly this will be a different scenario. That's, that's not realistic. And so the idea that if everyone does their part, including business. Yes, absolutely. And we can always do more, and they are doing more.

GILGER: Final question for you then, Todd, and a longer term one. So what kinds of consequences are you looking at when you, when you talk about the link between schools and the business and the economic success of the state, right? Like, if students are going to be having a difficult time getting through remote learning and can't, you know, get the kind of education we would like them to get until a vaccine is reached, what kind of long-term economic consequences might we see down the road?

SANDERS: Still hard to tell. I think that this was a wake up call for us, and that there are many parts of not only Phoenix in the Metro Phoenix area, but the rural parts of our state that are vastly lacking in the ability to teach kids from a distance. And so that's something I think we all need to work on. I don't deny that there are probably going to be some impacts, and certainly these kids that are coming up in their junior and senior years are going to have to figure out how we can ensure that they have the skills necessary to get out to the workforce or get into higher education. But I do think and we've been doing this — we're doing this now with Phoenix Union, we're, we're going to be starting this with Mesa and hopefully with a few other districts where we're directly connecting business. And so we're talking about making sure that the curriculums are aligned with industry. And that doesn't matter — it doesn't matter if you're graduating and going into a career, if you're going to go into a four-year, if you have that sort of alignment, you're going to come out and you're going to be marketable. And I do believe that's going to be a really important silver lining of this, because we're not going to stop doing that. We've seen that it can work and that it can make a difference.

GILGER: All right. That is Todd Sanders, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Todd, thank you so much for coming on to talk about this.

SANDERS: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

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