By Andrew Hay
Aug 12 (Reuters) - Some Arizona schools plan to restart in-person education on Monday in defiance of state benchmarks on when students and staff can safely return to classes during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
As President Donald Trump urges schools to resume in-person learning, two greater Phoenix-area school districts this week voted to return to classes on Aug. 17 even though their counties, like all others in Arizona, have yet to meet health safety benchmarks.
After hundreds of parents and students protested in Phoenix on Monday for in-person reopenings, state school superintendent Kathy Hoffman urged districts to follow the voluntary benchmarks and not put children and educators at risk.
"Not following them is a disservice to the educators who continue providing instruction via distance learning and families who are supporting distance learning," Hoffman said on Twitter.
Trump has praised Arizona for its ability to flatten a sharp spike in coronavirus cases since the state's Republican Governor Doug Ducey lifted a stay-at-home order on May 15.
Ducey, a Republican, reclosed businesses and pushed back in-person learning until at least Aug. 17, more than halving Arizona's test positivity to a level of around 12%.
He and Hoffman last week laid out benchmarks counties should meet before considering in-person learning, including two weeks with testing positivity below 7% and case levels of 100 per 100,000 residents.
But he left the final decision up to school districts.
Phoenix teacher Kelley Fisher said she was aware of at least four school districts returning to in-person learning on Monday and demanded Ducey set mandatory safe-to-return guidelines to stop them.
"We want to know from our governor how many cases will it take? How many deaths will it take?" said Fisher, who has organized protests calling for a delay to in-person learning until at least early October.
School boards in greater Phoenix's Queen Creek Unified and J.O. Combs Unified districts voted this week to provide "parent choice" of in-person or online learning starting Monday. "Families who feel their children must attend school in-person to properly thrive, and feel comfortable doing so, will now have that option," said Kayla Fulmer a spokeswoman for the J.O. Combs district. (Reporting by Andrew Hay, additional reporting by David Schwartz Editing by Robert Birsel)