PHOENIX — Education officials rebuffed Gov. Doug Ducey’s decision this week to lift the mask mandate for state schools, with many districts planning to ignore the order in a state where COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
“As soon as the governor released it, right away our locals went and met with superintendents, met with governing boards … almost within a couple of hours, it was, ‘Of course we’re going to keep the mask mandate,’” said Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association.
Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman was more critical, calling Ducey’s move another in “a long line of decisions that have resulted in Arizona’s embarrassing response to a virus that has claimed over 17,000 lives and impacted thousands more.”
“While vaccines hold the promise of a return to normalcy, letting up on other mitigation strategies now just increases risk of transmission at a time when we should be doing everything possible to keep students and their families safe,” Hoffman said in a statement, noting that children younger than 16 are still ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines.
The executive order, released Monday, reverses a July order that had required masks for staff and any student older than age 5 while at school, on the bus or at a school-related activity. In a statement with the order, Ducey said that COVID-19 “transmission is low among youth, and Arizona was among the first states to prioritize vaccinating teachers.”
But the order leaves the decision on masks to school districts, which means the governor’s action “may not have as big of an impact” as initially thought, said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
Humble called the decision “puzzling,” noting that it comes as counties in the state are still seeing moderate to substantial spread of the virus.
“We’re in a slow increase of cases. Hospitalizations have dropped and deaths, so that’s a good thing, but cases are continuing to go up,” Humble said. “Unless his decision was framed through the lens of pure hospital capacity, then I can’t say that there was any evidence to make the decision when the decision was made.”
The Casa Grande Elementary School District plans to continue to enforce a mask mandate throughout the current academic school year.
“As you likely know, our community spread rate is still in the substantial range, and it is not prudent nor is it safe to change course at this time,” CGESD Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales told parents in an email. “We will continue to evaluate the situation during the summer to make a determination for next school year.”
The Casa Grande Union High School District also plans to enforce a mask mandate for students for the rest of the school year.
“Part of Casa Grande Union High School District’s mitigation plan to get students back on campus to learn in person on a full-time basis was built on both staff and students wearing masks while on our campuses,” said Superintendent Steve Bebee. “The CDC and Pinal County Health still recommend that masks be worn for the safety and well-being of all staff and students. As a district, we agree with these recommendations and we will continue to require masks to be worn by both students and staff for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.”
Staff and students in the Toltec School District will also continue wearing face masks on campus through the end of the school year, a letter from district Superintendent Denise Rogers to parents said.
“Within 25 reporting weeks for the area within Toltec School District boundaries, 20 weeks have had high ratings in at least two benchmark categories,” Rogers’ letter to parents said. “Results for the past eight weeks depict a continuous rating of high in both transmission level and the number of cases.”
The Toltec district includes two schools, Arizona City Elementary School and Toltec Elementary School.
Superintendent Orlenda Roberts said there are no changes planned at this time for the Santa Cruz Valley Union High School District. Masks are still required.
The Eloy Elementary School District will continue to mandate the use of face masks.
“Recent data indicates that our district continues to have a high rate of transmission,” EESD Superintendent Ruby James said. “For the safety of students, staff and our community will continue to adhere closely to CDC guidelines.”
However, there was one Pinal County school district that followed the governor’s order and changed its mandate to wear masks in school to a recommendation.
The Combs School District in San Tan Valley said it “will continue to prioritize the safety and well being of our community, and will encourage the practice of known mitigation strategies such as social distancing, hand washing and temperature checks.”
Other Pinal districts were still considering what action to take as of Wednesday evening.
A spokesman for the governor defended the order Tuesday, saying the “health and safety of Arizona kids and teachers remains a priority.”
“This executive order and emergency measure ensures schools are able to make their own decisions around mask requirements, depending on the needs of their community, in alignment with CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidance,” said C.J. Karamargin, the spokesman.
But Hoffman said the CDC “still recommends universal masking in public schools to ensure safe learning environments.”
“While vaccines hold the promise of a return to normalcy, letting up on other mitigation strategies now just increases risk of transmission at a time when we should be doing everything possible to keep students and their families safe,” Hoffman’s statement said.
Humble also questioned the timing of the decision, saying it makes no sense for schools to suddenly abandon mask policies, especially with summer break around the corner.
Hoffman said the move “destabilizes school communities as they end what has arguably been the most challenging year for education.” She urged school boards and administrators to work with their communities “to make transparent, evidence-based decisions that build trust in the safety of our schools.”
Most school districts appear to be doing just that. Garcia said educators are so far “really happy” with the response of individual schools that have decided to retain a mask requirement for now.
Garcia said she was frustrated by an apparent lack of communication between school employees and the governor’s office before the decision was made.
“More than anything, I think we’re disappointed that the governor refuses to even meet with educators in the classroom, or driving a bus, or working in the cafeteria before he makes any of these unilateral decisions,” Garcia said.
Despite Ducey’s decision, Garcia was confident that keeping local mandates is “the right thing to do.”
“It is a layered approach of keeping everyone safe in a building,” she said. “I guess it just lends to yourself the question of why the governor chose to do that yesterday without speaking to educators who are actually doing the work.”