Legislature outlaws mask mandates for schools - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Legislature outlaws mask mandates for schools

July 21st, 2021 development
Legislature outlaws mask mandates for schools

By Paul Maryniak
Executive Editor

The flashpoint for the longest-running controversy throughout the 2020-21 school year in Chandler – mandatory face masks on campuses – was obliterated last month as a future tool for school districts as the Republican majority in the Legislature outlawed such mandates.

The measure “prohibits a county, city, town, school district governing board or charter school governing body from requiring students or staff use face coverings during school hours and on school property.”

That means districts not only are forbidden from requiring students and staff to wear masks in classrooms but also cannot require them for visitors to schools or citizens attending governing board meetings. Nothing prevents parents from making their own child wear a mask in school.

The ban also deprives districts of a tool many relied on to try and control COVID-19 transmission in the broader community.  And it comes as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 looms as a growing threat.

Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said, “As far as the ban on masks, we think the biggest thing to emphasize is that now with variants causing concerns, it will be on the Legislature to deal with the debate over masks.

“Districts and school boards are now powerless to implement any mask measures without the legislature say so even if the CDC recommends. This will cause problems in the fall with the Legislature out of session,” she said.

While the measure does not proscribe penalties for entities that violate the ban on mask mandates, it was denounced by former state health director Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association, who called the measure “stupid.”

“It’s harmful, it’s ill-advised. They know it’s harmful – they being (state health) director Cara Christ and Governor Ducey. They wanted to flex their muscles and so they made sure that that was put into the budget reconciliation bill and now districts and parents are going to have to live with it.”

The measure is one of dozens that were tacked on without any hearing to the state budget bill that was passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey June 30. Another measure forbids districts from requiring staff or students to get a COVID-19 vaccination or wear a mask to be in classroom instruction.

The mask mandate ban was sponsored by Kingman Republican Rep. and dentist Regina Cobb, who represents the district that includes Lake Havasu.

According to Today’s News-Herald Havasu News, Cobb and the rest of that district’s delegation had lobbied Lake Havasu officials to lift their mask requirement as early as last September, although it is unclear if they had also joined parents pressing the school board to lifting its mandate, which expired at the end of the school year.

Cobb and her two district colleagues also joined the Mohave County Board of Supervisors in sending a letter to the governor in May of last year that demanded he lift restrictions on businesses.

Chandler Unified maintained its mask requirement right up to the end of the school year.

As they have been throughout the country, the mask mandates have been a polarizing subject in both districts. Many board meetings throughout the year have included numerous emails both condemning and praising CUSD officials for maintaining the mandates.

Asked if Chandler Unified had any reaction to the Legislature’s action, spokesman Terry Locke replied, “Not particularly because we had no intention of implementing either of these measures.”

The Legislature’s approval of the ban on mandates  comes at a time when vaccination rates are flagging and when the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been spreading across Arizona and the rest of the country.

“Prohibiting schools from making mask mandates is foolhardy,” said LD18 Rep. Mitzi Epstein, whose district includes northern Chandler.

Three medical professionals – Dr. Cadey Harrel, family physician in Tucson and the Arizona State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care; Dr. Ricardo Correa, an endocrinologist in Phoenix; and Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, professor of epidemiology – held a press conference earlier this month to condemn the ban on mask mandates.

Noting there are about 610,000 children under 12 in Arizona who are not eligible for a vaccine, Harrell said “the Legislature’s decision puts them in harm’s way.”

“And that’s unacceptable,” she said. “In fact, it’s reprehensible.”

Correa said adolescents who contract COVID-19 have a higher hospitalization rate.

“Arizona legislators should be more concerned about protecting public health and safety, not scoring political points and appeasing their base by making bad decisions,” he said.

Humble said that people who need to worry about that variant – which some experts said appears to trigger more serious cases of COVID-19 infection and most hospitalizations – are those who have not been vaccinated.

And that includes most K-12 students, especially those in lower grades who have not been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration to get COVID shots.

“The K-5 kids – none of them will be vaccinated,” Humble said. “And K6-12 – the vaccination rates are pretty poor still and only Pfizer is so far the only one that can go below age 16.”

“As a new school year begins, though, there are still risks with this virus and particularly because of Delta – it’s a lot easier to catch it,” he continued. “It’s dangerous in that it just spreads so much easier but once you get it, it’s not worse than Alpha.”

Citywide, 54.1 percent of all eligible Chandler residents are fully vaccinated. Among the city’s northern ZIP codes, 85225 has a lower percentage of fully vaccinated residents at 44 percent. Vaccination rates for 85224 and 85226 are 52.4 percent and 55.9 percent, respectively.

That data – which does not measure vaccinations within school district boundaries – show 48.2 percent of eligible Tempe residents are fully vaccinated – slightly higher than Phoenix’s 44.6 percent, according to the county.

County health department data show a moderate level of COVID-19 transmission within the boundaries of Chandler Unified.

Citywide, Chandler also shows a moderate COVID-19 transmission level with 42 cases per 100,000 and 3.9 positive results in new virus tests. However, 85225 is an exception with a substantial transmission level, mainly because positivity is more than twice the citywide percentage.

Humble said the mask mandate ban had been in the works for days and condemned state Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ for keeping silent. DHS did not respond to an AFN request for comment.

He also rapped Ducey for approving the measure.

“From a public health point of view and local control point of view, it’s also hypocritical because he keeps saying he’s in favor of school choice. Well, this definitely takes away choice from parents. There’s no district in the whole state where they can take their kid – especially one who is immunocompromised – that’s going to have assurances that the faculty and students are going to be wearing masks.”