School, bag, backpack.

On Aug. 21, the Arizona Education Association called on Gov. Doug Ducey “to implement a statewide COVID-19 school safety plan to ensure the health and safety of our children and their educators.”

According to its website, the teachers’ union has more than 20,000 members and is “the largest professional association for public school employees in Arizona.” 

In a letter to Ducey, AEA President Joseph H. Thomas stressed a plan should include:  

• Mandate masks be worn statewide in schools and on buses until the end of the school year.

• Require safety protocols for school districts regarding COVID-19 exposure notification plans for employees and students.

• Cancel this year’s high-stakes standardized testing due to the disruptions related to COVID-19 rendering scores unreliable for the 2020-21 school year.

• Grant school districts flexibility toward meeting the requirement of 180 days of instruction due to impacts related to COVID-19.

• Provide the additional funding necessary to ensure that when schools open to students, schools can continue to provide safe and healthy learning environments needed for students to excel.

“The Aug. 17 deadline, a date you called aspirational, has passed, and our schools are still not safe to return to,” Thomas wrote. “It is time for you to act in the best interests of our children and their educators.

“Arizona needs a statewide plan regarding school safety. The Arizona Education Association calls upon you to either initiate such a plan or pass the responsibility over to the Superintendent of Public Instruction to do so.”

Ducey did not respond to the letter.

He has not changed the “Arizona is Open for Learning” plan he unveiled July 23.

Ducey’s plan includes:

• Regardless of when regular in-person classroom learning begins, each school district and charter school needs to begin teacher-led distance learning by the first day of their traditional instructional calendar. 

• Schools will continue to be required to provide 180 days of instruction or equivalent hours, whether a family chooses to do so in person or via distance learning.

• To qualify for enhanced funding, schools must begin offering free on-site learning and support services for students who need a place to go during the day.

According to his website, “Gov. Ducey is providing maximum flexibility to local school leaders, recognizing they need the expertise of public health professionals and data to guide their decision-making.”

Thomas stressed “students are best served with in-person instruction and with access to safe classrooms, qualified educators and healthy meals. This is most critical for students of color, whose communities have been more susceptible to the virus and whose families are unable to be at home with the children because of professional obligations.”

Staff urgently needs proper personal protective equipment, Thomas stressed.

“Thousands of education support professionals have already reported to their school sites, bus barns and maintenance facilities. These public school employees are putting themselves and their families at risk while districts struggle to acquire the personal protective equipment and disinfecting supplies necessary to maintain a safe workforce,” Thomas wrote.

That, combined with many teachers taking early retirement, has led to confusion and a lack of safety, Thomas wrote: “Parents are struggling with how best to support and protect their children. Educators, parents and students need a plan for a safe return to our schools without jeopardizing their health or the health of their family or community.”