Arizona will develop health guidelines that will help schools determine when they can open for in-person learning, Gov. Doug Ducey announced July 23.

Ducey also further extended the closures due to the coronavirus pandemic of the state’s gyms, bars, nightclubs, water parks and tubing—an order that was set to expire July 29 but will be reviewed every two weeks thereafter under a new executive order.

Regarding schools, under a new executive order, there is no new date to start, but an expectation of 180 days, or equivalent hours, of instruction will continue. Additionally, Arizona Department of Health Services will come up with benchmarks by Aug. 7 for school districts to judge for themselves when they can open.

The governor previously set an “aspirational” date for return of Aug. 17 at a June 29 news conference.

Now, the state is setting an expectation that in-person services will be available for at-risk students and the children of essential workers.

Ducey said for these students, school is safest place for them to be, and they need services. The state is giving districts flexibility in how to meet that need, citing examples of just opening one school to accommodate the need or partnering with community organizations.

The state also will count online instruction toward the required instruction time for the year, Ducey said.

State of Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said it was unlikely that schools would be ready to be reopened for in-person instruction by Aug. 17 and that state officials decided to use guidelines rather than hard dates because of the possibility of those dates being continually pushed back.

The plan also allows for districts to make the decision to close again if serious outbreaks happens, Hoffman said.

Hoffman called the plan comprehensive and flexible, and the plan referred to schools as Arizona’s most essential services.

She noted that most schools have chosen to open the year using distance learning until in-person instruction can be conducted.

Ducey said the focus must not be on the date opening but having a successful academic year with rigorous instruction and consistency while assuring health and safety on campuses.

As it comes to health, adults will be expected to wear face masks and districts are empowered to come up with local policies on the coverings. Students can take off coverings when they are outside and can social distance.

Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said the benchmarks will be developed looking at what other states are doing as well as guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the White House task force on the virus.

The state also has $69.2 million available through its AzCares fund for different efforts to close the digital divide between those who have access to computers and Internet and those who do not.

Ducey pointed to improving trends on cases, testing percentage and hospital capacity and thanked Arizonans in making those trends happen. He also asked residents to remain vigilant against the virus.

A “Tougher than COVID” advertising campaign to encourage people to wear masks was also introduced during the press conference.

Ducey did note a problem with the lag time in getting test results, a development that Christ said affects public health.

While demand for testing has decreased in the past week, the state is continuing to make efforts to make surge testing available and decrease the turnaround from labs on reporting results, Ducey said.

“There is no victory lap today,” Ducey said. “There’s no celebtation. We cannot let up.”