PHOENIX — Arizona public schools will be closed for at least the next two weeks.
In an announcement Sunday, Gov. Doug Ducey and state schools chief Kathy Hoffman said they do not want schools to open on Monday. The closure will run through at least Friday, March 27, with the pair promising to reassess the need beyond that.
In an open letter to families and educators, the pair emphasized that the closure will address only "operational issues."
"Doing this will not stop the spread of COVID-19,'' they said.
"The safest place for children during this time is at home," the governor and schools chief continued. "They should not be cared for by elderly adults or those with underlying health conditions, including grandparents and other family members.''
The issue of what are the options for parents who cannot stay home was only tangentially addressed.
"For families for whom that is not an option, we are coordinating with partners in the non-profit, faith-based and education communities, including the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA to make available childcare options to families who need it,'' Ducey said in a separate online video he made with Hoffman. No specifics were provided.
Of note is that the decision comes less than a week after state Health Director Cara Christ suggested that closing schools was not a good option. She said it was better for children to remain with others rather than end up elsewhere, mixing with other children and potentially spreading the disease even further.
The governor had no explanation of why that argument no longer makes sense in his mind.
But Ducey also was facing pressure from another front.
Earlier Sunday, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas sent a letter to the governor saying his organization was calling for students to remain home "until education leaders and state policymakers can present a detailed plan of support that assures students will be returning to safe classrooms and healthy school sites.''
"While any school closure can be disruptive, it is reckless to pretend we are sending our teachers, staff, and students into safe environments Monday morning,'' Thomas wrote. "Arizona needs time to assess how healthy our schools can be and what the rest of the school year will look like for our students. We must act now for all our safety."
In some ways, the joint announcement was anticlimatic.
Officials in dozens of school districts already had reached the same conclusion. This just makes it official -- and covers the more than 200 school districts and charter schools statewide.
The pair said they were in no rush to issue such an edict.
"We've worked hard to keep our school doors open," the announcement says. "These are important assets in people's lives and many families rely on them for nutrition and access to health care."
What changed, they suggested, was the developing situation.
"Staffing and potential absences are a concern in many districts,'' the announcement says.
"This decision was not made lightly,'' Ducey said in the video explaining the action. "But it's the right thing to do to bring certainty and consistency to all Arizona schools.''
Some of what will happen now is up to individual districts.
For example, the announcement says the state is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow schools to begin "summer food service operations,'' providing boxed meals as needed. Parents were told to get specifics with local schools.
Also not yet decided is the effect on employees, both teachers and classified staff ranging from cafeteria workers to bus drivers.
"We're working together to make sure you don't see any disruption to your pay,'' the announcement says. "We'll also be consulting with our district and legislative partners to determine the extent of any makeup days.''
Also unclear is what happens to statewide achievement tests that are scheduled, tests that are linked to federal aid.
"We're currently engaging with our federal partners in the event that we need to secure a waiver,'' the pair said.
The announcement also urges school officials to make plans for what happens when school resumes to ensure "a safe learning environment.''
Some of that involves issues like "social distancing,'' the idea of keeping students separated from each other to the extent possible. That, however, could prove difficult in classrooms given that the Centers for Disease Control suggests a six-foot margin.
Other post-reopening measures include regular intervals for administrators to wash and sanitize their hands as well as guidance on how to properly and frequently sanitize equipment and surfaces.
"We all have a role in confronting the impact of COVID-19," Ducey said in the video. "We're going to act together and we're going to get through this together.''