July 24, 2020 / 1:43 AM / 14 days ago

Arizona drops in-person school start date as virus rate remains high

(Reuters) - Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday dropped a plan to require in-person learning to start on Aug. 17 at public schools, leaving it up to school districts on when to begin onsite education as COVID-19 test positivity rates remained high.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump hugs Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, as the president arrives at Sky International Airport to tour a nearby Honeywell facility manufacturing protective masks for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Teachers have demonstrated for weeks to delay the start of in-person learning, saying it was too dangerous for students to return to classes as around one in four COVID-19 tests in Arizona came back positive - the highest rate in the United States according to the Covid Exit Strategy tracking website.

Ducey said state authorities would provide school districts with science-based benchmarks on when students could return.

Pressed on whether schools would be ready by Aug. 17, state schools superintendent Kathy Hoffman said she doubted it.

“We don’t know what that date is, it’s not reasonable to set a date,” Hoffman told a press conference.

Neighboring New Mexico on Thursday delayed in-person learning until at least after Sept. 7, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham saying COVID-19 levels were still too problematic.

Arizona reported a decline in daily cases in July and lowered its rate of ICU hospitalizations but authorities expect deaths to increase in coming weeks.

There are questions whether the state is keeping up with test demand. Results take up to 12 days to come back in some cases and Sonora Quest Laboratories reported a backlog of over 57,000 pending results.

Phoenix kindergarten teacher Kelley Fisher, who led protests to delay in-person school, said she was disappointed Ducey did not provide guidance on what benchmarks would be used and left it up to school districts to make decisions.

“I still don’t feel confident I will be returning to a safe working environment,” she said.

Ducey also extended the closure of gyms, bars, nightclubs, water parks and movie theaters in the state.

Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix and Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Grant McCool

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