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Encouraged By CDC Report And Vaccines, Hoffman Supporting Safe Arizona School Reopenings

By Rocio Hernandez, Steve Goldstein
Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2021 - 5:17pm
Updated: Thursday, February 25, 2021 - 11:25am

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Kathy Hoffman
Rocio Hernandez / KJZZ
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is discussing safe school reopenings during a Feb. 24, 2021, press conference outside of the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman believes Arizona schools can safely reopening with strategies recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She also encouraged by the fact that educators across the state have access to COVID-19 vaccines. 

“Within our school communities it can actually be safer in the schools than out in the community because a greater percentage of school communities have had access to vaccines," Hoffman said during a Wednesday press conference outside of the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix. 

The vaccine was a big factor in setting a March 29 reopening date for the Osborn School District, said governing board President Ylenia Aguilar. The majority of the district's students have been learning remotely since the pandemic began nearly a year ago. 

“We’ve been very lucky that we’ve had up to 90% of our staff vaccinated, and with time we’re looking at 95% of all staff being vaccinated," Aguilar said.

The district’s mitigation strategies include plexiglass in between students and improved HVAC systems, Aguilar said, adding that the latter was made possible with the help of a recently passed school bond. 

Hoffman's office is allocating federal funds to districts and charter schools who need support to get similar resources essential to keeping students and staff safe while in the classroom. 

“Wherever possible, ADE will work to provide our schools, particularly elementary schools the resources and support to resume or continuing offering in-person learning," Hoffman said. 

But Hoffman said she’s not setting deadlines for school reopenings because she understands areas that have been particularly hard hit by the virus, such as the Navajo Nation, may not be ready for this step. 

Hoffman also spoke with The Show for more about her optimism on the prospect of reopening.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: So yesterday you mentioned that schools have policies in place necessary to resume at least some in-person learning related to some [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] (CDC) guidelines. Have you decided to change a bit on this in the sense that are you becoming a little bit more optimistic and are you trying to give that, that attitude out to folks who are concerned?

KATHY HOFFMAN: Well, I think I've always been an optimist, but what's really challenged me over the past year is that back in July and then again during the winter months in December and January, Arizona had some of the highest spread of COVID-19 outbreaks in the country. And that was really holding our schools back from being able to safely reopen. So I am feeling much more hopeful right now. And there's a couple of different factors of why and why, why my tone and messaging is changing now. One is vaccines. Vaccines are making a huge difference because our educators and school staff have been prioritized, which is a big deal. We heard yesterday from Ylenia Aguilar, who is the president of the Osborn School District Governing Board, who shared that 90% of their school staff have been vaccinated, which is really helping them to be able to move forward with offering more in-person instruction. We're also in the process of allocating over a billion dollars across our schools, all of our schools across the state in Arizona. So that's also going to make a big make a big difference in terms of our schools being able to buy the supplies that they need and to, you know, all of these different policies — having the mask mandate for our K-12 schools — all of these different policies and factors, working together, having layered mitigation strategies is why I'm feeling much more optimistic about the direction we're headed.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's talk about that billion dollars. What kinds of things do you anticipate schools will be able to need to use that money for? And do you anticipate that that money will cover most or all of the needs that the schools have in this regard?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's definitely going to make a big difference, and this is the second round of federal [COVID-19] relief and recovery funding. It's really intended to be supplementary funding to help our schools with reopening and recovering from, from this crisis. Unfortunately, in Arizona, one of the challenges many of our schools are facing is with declining enrollment and being underfunded for distance learning. They are faced with budget deficits. And so that does make it more difficult to use the federal recovery funding for, for recovery needs. But the funding, the CARES Act funding is very flexible, which is a good thing because our, when we think about our schools across the state, the local context really matters and they have very different needs. So that it can be used for a wide range of things, everything from infrastructure to hiring staff to help with remediation and interventions. It could be used for tutoring or extending the school day. It also could be used for technology. And I would, I would definitely urge our schools to be looking at that really seriously, because I, even just the other day I met with my student advisory council and technology is a big deal to them. And they said that many of them shared that their schools still have very old and outdated things like laptops that, that they would like to see updated.

GOLDSTEIN: Superintendent, you've been a very strong advocate of mental health when it comes to teachers, students, staff. And as the schools become more physically safe so that students and teachers and staff feel more comfortable returning, are there things that can be done to make sure they feel better mentally about this return after, for many of them, a year not being there?

HOFFMAN: Absolutely. Mental health concerns that I have for Arizona students predate COVID-19, and now the pandemic has only exacerbated those issues and concerns. And so we are, the department is using some of our CARES Act set-aside funding for things like professional development for educators and trauma-informed practices and social emotional learning. So we're doing everything we can to help our educators be prepared to work with students to make sure that we're addressing their mental health needs. But in addition, I strongly advocated for our state to fully fund the school safety grant program because we did see last year when the program was expanded to allow for hiring school counselor and social worker positions, that the state was only able to fund about a half of the applications for these positions. And so it would actually take another $45 million investment from the state to fully fund all of these school counselor and social worker positions that our schools are requesting.

GOLDSTEIN: OK, well, we'll stop there. That is Kathy Hoffman. She is Arizona's superintendent of public instruction. Superintendent, thanks as always.

HOFFMAN: Thank you so much.

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