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Maricopa, Pima among 10 counties to meet benchmarks to partially reopen schools

Meeting these recommended benchmarks means schools can move forward with a hybrid model of learning, which includes both in-person and virtual learning.

PHOENIX — Several Arizona counties have reached the benchmarks set by state health officials to allow in-person learning through a hybrid model, according to new data released by the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

Maricopa, Cochise, Coconino, Navajo, Pima, Pinal counties met benchmarks set by the state to safely reopen schools for a hybrid learning model, which includes both in-person and virtual learning, amid COVID-19. 

Apache and Yavapai counties met the benchmarks last week. 

Greenlee and La Paz counties have reached "the minimal category benchmarks, which ADHS recommends should be met prior to returning to full in-person, traditional instruction," state health officials said in a press release Thursday. 

“The primary goal is to keep our children, staff, and their families safe and healthy throughout this school year,” said Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy 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.”

Even though the state sets these benchmarks, ultimately reopening is still a district by district decision.  

Cave Creek Unified Schools was planning to return to in-person learning on Sept. 8, before benchmarks were announced.

The Simmons family, with 6th-grade Braxtyn, 9th-grade Xander and 4th-grade Maddox, have mixed feelings.

"I'm very, very, very excited," Braxtyn said, noting she'd rather ask questions and learn in-person.

But her brothers aren't as eager.

"I like the online because I really get done with my work really fast," said Xander, a freshman at Cactus Shadow High School.  "I want to go to school but I don’t want to go to COVID school.  I want things to stay the way we are."

The decision to reopen is a district by district decision.  For example, Chandler Unified Schools announced Thursday morning that in-person learning will pick back up in October.

But leaders with Mesa Public Schools are waiting to see if the benchmarks change next week before finalizing if they should return to the classroom Sept. 14.

For some families, the return to the classroom is welcome.

"The hard part is, how do you take time to sit down and do everything with a kindergartner?" says Erin Dickson, who has a daughter in kindergarten with two other toddlers at home. "She can’t read. She doesn’t know how to operate Zoom. But then also how do you care for two other kids who can’t entertain themselves and also need you for everything?"

She says her daughter's teacher in Cave Creek has been great online, but Dickson says getting her daughter into a classroom will give them a better routine.

"I think all around it’s going to be such a good thing for our family," says Dickson.

"I choose to have a little bit more faith over fear," she said when asked about COVID-19 concerns.

The Arizona Department of Health Services tracked data from all the counties in the state to see if they met certain benchmarks for safely resuming in-person learning.

RELATED: Maricopa County reaches 'moderate' benchmark to reopen businesses

Along with other health and safety guidelines, there were three important benchmarks counties were tasked with reaching.

1. Decline in cases OR less than 100 cases per 100,000 individuals for two consecutive weeks 

2. Two consecutive weeks with percent positivity below 7% 

3. Two consecutive weeks with hospital visits for COVID-like illnesses in the region below 10% 

The below charts show which counties have met these benchmarks as of September 3. 

Credit: 12 News
Credit: 12 News

RELATED: Arizona’s health department wants you to report businesses that don’t enforce safety requirements

ADHS recommends schools move from a fully online learning model to a combination of in-person and virtual learning.

State health officials are still asking schools to practice mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. Which includes the following:

  • 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
  • Symptom screening.