Students in Higley USD will have the option to return to school for full in-person instruction starting Sept. 8 after a governing board vote Aug. 26.

The board voted 4-1 to set the date, though it is dependent on the district meeting and continuing to meet health benchmarks. Board member Scott Glover voted in dissent.

Certified staff was informed of the board proposal Aug. 25, and many responded with emails to the board asking that the board continue to keep the district in remote learning at least until the benchmarks are actually met, rather than trending toward being met in the time frame that would allow a Sept. 8 opening.

Additionally, some of the emails accused the district and board of “cherry-picking” data between whatever was more favorable, the state’s dashboard for data on a county level or the county’s dashboard for data on the school district level.

The three benchmarks are cases per 100,000 population, percent positivity on testing and COVID-19-like illness hospitalization rates. The state has defined metrics in each category that demonstrate substantial (red), medium (yellow) or minimal (green) community spread.

The state recommends, but does not require, a return to a learning hybrid model that combines online and part-time in-person learning when all three metrics are at least in the yellow. HUSD does not offer a hybrid model.

The state recommends that in-person learning be opened when the three benchmarks in the green.

A presentation from the district judged the district to be in the green on all three benchmarks.

However, only the hospitalization rate for COVID-19-like illness being is in the green—under 5%—on both county and district data.

The county numbers have declined for two consecutive weeks on new cases per 100,000 population, giving the district a green light, but the district data shows new cases in the district boundaries at 35.3 per 100,000 population, making it yellow.

On positivity percentage in testing, the district is at 4.8%, giving it a green light, but the county data is still in the red.

The district’s presentation to the board specifically indicates the district is taking the higher score in each metric to judge the strength in each benchmark. That did not go unnoticed to the people writing the board or to Glover.

“A grain of salt, but kudos to our teachers for calling out that chart [of metrics] because I saw that [some metrics not being met] and had great issues with that,” Glover said. “It’s got to be green-green in my estimation, and cherry-picking really does set you up.”

Glover urged the board to continue to monitor the metrics in the next couple weeks and what is happening in neighboring districts, particularly Queen Creek USD, which opened to in-person instruction Aug. 17.

Board Member Greg Wojtovich, who has consistently questioned if the district can keep people safe on campus, said he is OK with a Sept. 8 opening if the metrics are met and said the board must be willing to pull the plug on the opening if the last metrics released before then, on Sept. 3, do not indicate the district is in the green.

Board Vice President Kristina Reese defended the practice, noting the state benchmarks are recommendations, not requirements. Reese has pushed for reopening as soon as possible.

Athletics reopening

Secondary Education and Athletics Director David Loutzenheiser presented an update on athletics in the district.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association, high school sports’ governing body in the state, has started fall sports’ reopening with golf, cross country and swimming having started competition.

Other fall sports will continue to reopen throughout September, though schedules await guidance from the AIA’s Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.

On the middle school level, the East Valley Conference will try to run its four seasons in three academic quarters by shortening the seasons with fewer games and limiting the size of games.

Athletic fees will remain the same.

When schools host events, masks will be required for anyone on school grounds. All games will be streamed on the National Federation of State High School Associations network. Touchless tickets will be used through the GoFan app. Concession stands will only serve prepackaged food.

No fans will be allowed in the stands if schools are only in remote learning. Bands, spirit lines and a limited number of students will be allowed, while each participant can purchase up to four tickets when a limited return to campus is allowed.

When schools are fully open to in-person learning on campus, no restrictions will be placed on fan attendance, but physical distancing will be encouraged, including by bringing more seating in.