PHOENIX - Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed an executive order requiring schools in the state to offer in-person learning by March 15 or after spring break.
The order cites how 12 of Arizona's 15 counties are in phases where schools are considered safe to open, including Maricopa and Pima counties.
"Arizona’s students need to be back in the classroom. More than half of Arizona’s schools are open and offering in-person options," said Governor Ducey in a statement. "The science is clear: it’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap."
According to a statement, an exception will be made for middle and high schools in counties that have "high" COVID-19 transmission based on CDC guidelines, including Coconino, Yavapai and Pinal counties.
"However, CDC is clear that there is a safe pathway for all schools to open at any transmission level, and to stay open if they implement proper mitigation strategies," said a statement from Ducey's office. "A student may continue participating in virtual instruction if their parent or guardian chooses so."
On Monday, Students and staff at Mountain Pointe High School marked their first day back on campus since last March.
Students say getting back together, physically, was the highlight of the day.
"Be able to interact with my friends again, actually one-on-one with the teachers, just the classroom environment was good for me. Today was pretty good," said Colten Jackson, a student.
"People, my friends, my teachers, everyone. I'm a friendly person. I love being around a lot of people," said student, Jaidejah Turner.
About 1,000 students, roughly half the student population, opted to finish the school year in-person.
"To be honest, my parents really wanted me to come back. They wanted a break from me finally," Jackson said.
In the Phoenix Elementary School District, nearly 60% of students plan to come back to school on Wednesday.
Social studies teacher at Heard School, Jennifer Custis, says students will benefit emotionally by returning to the classroom.
"I'm actually very thankful that some of our students do have this chance because it has been very emotionally hard for our middle school students to be stuck inside at home, isolated. I'm excited for this to help their emotional wellbeings and for this first step towards a return to normal," Custis said.
She says many students have been struggling this year and it’s been difficult for teachers to reach out and help.
"I have felt helpless. I think a lot of teachers have in this online environment. And now it’s a step closer to having our kids, some of our kids back and be there for them, to see the struggle and go help them, that we could not see online," Custis said.
Some schools will not return to in-person learning this week as exceptions will be made for middle and high schools in counties with high virus transmission rates.
Those counties include Coconino, Yavapai and Pinal counties.
Some educators and parents express concern
Some educators say they are concerned with a statewide mandate, districts could be forced to go back to in-person learning before they are prepared to do so safely.
"Many school districts have been leaning on this issue, and we’ve worked hand-in-hand with our communities to decide what is best for our communities that we serve, so it’s important that the Governor not circumvent the community’s decisions," said Devin Del Palacio, President of the Tolleson Unified High School District Governing Board.
Arizona COVID-19 resources, FAQ: azdhs.gov/coronavirus
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