PHOENIX — The state's estimated 86,000 high school seniors won't be prevented from graduating just because the governor shut down Arizona schools through the end of the academic year.
But there were only questions — and no immediate answers — to how to make up the loss of nearly a third of the academic year for students in the lower grades.
Without dissent, the state Board of Education adopted an emergency rule Tuesday that bars school districts and charter schools from withholding academic credit or a diploma "solely because the student missed instructional time due to a school closure issued by the governor.''
The rule also says that schools, in determining if a student meets the minimum course and competency requirements may consider whether that person has successfully completed the educational opportunities that were provided during the days the schools where shuttered. That can include both online instruction and independent study that may be through printed materials.
But the rule does have an escape clause of sorts if there is no ability to determine if a student actually has been doing anything while at home. In that case, schools can decide that a student has met the requirements if he or she "was on track to meet the minimum course of study and competency requirements prior to the school closure.''
What that can include, the rule says, could include whether the student was passing all of his or her courses. Also acceptable would be passing scores on locally or nationally administered academic assessments.
That decision ultimately would be made by local school officials.
And the rule spells out that when schools determine that students are entitled to academic credits and to graduate that they get their transcripts and diplomas "in the same manner'' as if there had not been a closure.
Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of public instruction and a member of the board, told Capitol Media Services after the meeting that her aim and that of the board is to ensure that students are given the benefit of the doubt and get to graduate, even if they didn't do any work at all since schools were shuttered last month.
"There are definitely situations across the state where students are not going to be able to access high-quality curriculum, whether that's because they don't have the ability to get online, or they're sick, or their family's sick,'' she said, saying there are "so many unique circumstances.''
"I definitely would not encourage anybody to stop trying or stop working to access high-quality instruction and curriculum,'' Hoffman said. "I just think we need to be honest that there's going to be situations don't have the ability to meet all the typical expectations we would have during a normal school year.''
In separate emails to the boards, various high school students and their parents urged board members to tell high schools to simply delay but not cancel high school graduation.
Yoly Martinez said that seniors have worked hard for years while helping families and holding a job at the same time.
"It would be cruel if we do not find a way to celebrate their success thus far in their lives,'' she wrote. "For some, it may even leave a mark saying all you've worked for tirelessly in the past years means nothing.''
She suggested some ceremony where each student got only two tickets with a requirement "to keep the social distancing.''
A senior at Mountain Pointe High School in Tempe, whose name was redacted from the public version of the email, said students have been waiting 12 years — or, as she put it, 105,120 hours — to walk across the stage.
"Please let the seniors have this one thing, to see the teachers who changed their lives and to walk across with the friends they stressed about grades with, and the friends and family who pushed them to be great to get to that stage,'' the email reads.
Despite the lack of formal action, board member Armando Ruiz said he believes that most high schools will find an "innovative way to celebrate graduation.''
Hoffman agreed, saying she already has spoken with some school superintendents about finding "creative'' solutions.
For example, she said, one superintendent is looking at bringing in students one at a time, having each record a video message. Those messages then would be compiled into a graduation video.
High school graduation aside, Ruiz separately worried about the larger effects of the shutdown of close to a third of the school year will have on students.
"It's going to take from three to five years for kids to catch up,'' he said. Ruiz was particularly focused on students in the lower grades -- and particularly from families who lack access to the internet. He figures that category could equal about 170,000 Arizona children who do not have access to remote learning.
"I've heard people say you can do packets,'' Ruiz said, sending home materials. But he said that's not an answer.
"Parents are often ill-prepared to teach their kids at home,'' he said. For example, he said, there are children who come from homes where the parents speak only Spanish and lack any way of getting help.
"This is going to be an ongoing challenge for our state,'' Hoffman said. "There's no easy solution to make it up.''
Aside from working with business leaders, the schools chief said the state can make this a priority for the use of federal funds it expects to get.
"This will definitely be a multi-year project,'' she said. "It's not something we can fix overnight.''
In adopting the rules for graduation, board members declined to consider several suggestions for alterations.
In a filing with the board, a group of school superintendents wanted a requirement to keep community colleges, universities and other post-secondary institutions from revoking already-issued admission letters which were contingent on successful completion of the school year.
Hoffman, however, said the board does not regulate these institutions and has no legal right to direct what they do.
They also suggested — and the state board did not consider — a "better but not worse'' grading policy that allows students to use the time schools are closed to to not only take advantage of learning opportunities but also make up missed work or retake exams. That would allow teachers at the end of the school year to update grades, but only to improve them and not to lower them.
Board members in their discussion did not explain their decision not to consider those recommendations. But Hoffman said that doesn't mean the concerns were being ignored, saying the board still could take up these issues at a regular meeting.
"Today my intention was to prioritize and take care of some of the high-need areas,'' she said.