Torri Anderson

Board member Torri Anderson speaks during a Maricopa Unified School District board meeting.

MARICOPA — A little over a year after Maricopa schools were forced to close due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic, Maricopa Unified School District is tentatively loosening restrictions as it nears the end of the 2020-21 school year.

Superintendent Tracey Lopeman shared that, for the first time this school year, there were weeks in March and April with zero reported cases among students and staff. This is due in part to the declining COVID-19 cases in the United States but could also be because of vaccinations among staff.

Human Resources Director Tom Beckett told the board on Wednesday that he sent out a teacher survey with a 70% response rate, which indicated that a little over half of MUSD staff — 421 to be exact — had been vaccinated or were in the process.

In April, Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded a section of executive order 2020-51, which had directed public schools to require facial coverings.

“There was some confusion because he stated that his rescission was in accordance with CDC guidelines. The CDC still recommends proper mask wearing to help control the transmission of COVID-19,” said Lopeman. “On April 23, Dr. Cara Christ further clarified that the Arizona Department of Health Services still recommends mask usage in schools.”

To date, the district has vowed to follow data and advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as feedback from MUSD staff and parents.

In a survey sent out to staff, 57.6% indicated they would still wear a mask if given the option while 42.3% would not; 51.1% of staff said they would feel uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with the idea of allowing students and staff to attend school without a facial covering, while 38.7% said they were at least comfortable with the idea. An additional 10.1% said they were neither uncomfortable nor comfortable with rescinding the mask mandate indoors.

With these numbers taken into account, Lopeman addressed future policy changes to mask wearing. She suggested that masks remain required indoors for all district buildings and school buses and become optional for outdoors for the remainder of the school year. Outdoors would include physical education and athletics.

Then, when summer school starts June 1, the district would switch to an optional mask-wearing policy indoors and outdoors while monitoring for case counts. The superintendent also reserves the right to reinstate the mask policy.

The board unanimously voted to accept Lopeman’s recommendations and offered their thoughts on the new policies.

“I just want to get through the end of the year and have in-person celebrations, and if that means we have to keep wearing masks inside, let’s do it,” said board member Torri Anderson. “I like Dr. Lopeman’s suggestions, especially that it could be optional outdoors. …I am fully in support of making summer school optional, depending on our numbers. It gives me hope that at the start of the school year, we could do it without masks — hopefully.”

Board President Ben Owens agreed and said that the removal of a mask mandate now could cause unnecessary issues with final test taking and end-of year-ceremonies that have already been up in the air due to the pandemic.

“I would really hate for someone to miss it because they’re in quarantine, to no fault of their own,” Owens said.

To that end, Lopeman added that the same will be true for those students attending summer school to help gain back the educational losses they suffered in an unusual school year.

“The impact of a quarantine is what is really debilitating, that’s the problem,” Lopeman said. “If summer school is only three or four weeks and we have to go on a quarantine for 14 days, we start to impact our ability to be effective with this important intervention. We are going to keep our ear very close to the ground because we don’t want to lose the impact of summer school because we made masks optional.”

Vice President AnnaMarie Knorr suggested a change to the quarantine policy, but changes could not be made at that meeting. Anderson mentioned that quarantine specifications have already been altered to be less restrictive, such as allowing for a 3-foot distance in classrooms or taking vaccinations into account for teacher quarantines.

Knorr, as a parent of four herself, said she has struggled during the pandemic with balancing student and parent choice and safety protocols.

“I really want to move toward choice in masks, and letting parents and families decide if they want to wear a mask going forward,” Knorr said.

Though Knorr said she is in support of continuing the mask mandate through the end of the school year to ensure students can participate in their end-of-year ceremonies, she is excited to distance the board from decision-making related to the COVID pandemic.

“I would like to move away from being the COVID police,” Knorr said. “But I also want to keep my commitment to families.”

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Katie Sawyer covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at ksawyer@pinalcentral.com.