The flashpoint for perhaps the longest-running controversy throughout the 2020-21 school year in Mesa – mandatory face masks on campuses – was obliterated last month when the Republican majority in the Legislature quietly 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 help reduce COVID-19 transmission levels in the community as well as protect students and staff. And it comes as the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 looms as a 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,” Vega added.
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.”
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 last week 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.
The ban is one of dozens of special measures were tacked on without any hearing to the state budget bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey June 30.
Although the Centers for Disease Control on July 9 said vaccinated students and teachers do not need masks in schools, the Legislature forbids districts as well as universities and colleges from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations or masks for in-classroom instruction.
Mesa Public Schools made masks optional May 3 but prior to that, the Governing Board at numerous meetings heard from opponents and proponents of the mandate.
Parents and even students were divided over the requirement and some board members were troubled by the community’s polarization around the issue.
MPS board members did not reply to a Tribune request for comment on the Legislature’s action last month.
MPS spokeswoman Heidi Hurst released a statement that said, “The district is confident in its classroom-by-classroom and school-by-school strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
After Gov. Doug Ducey in April gave districts the option to decide a mask policy, Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis initially said MPS’s mandate would remain in force, but within about a week changed her mind and made face coverings optional.
She qualified her decision at the time by saying masks would be optional if county health department virus data showed low transmission levels in the community.
At the April 27 board meeting, multiple teachers expressed outrage over the change, stating they were baffled it came in the final stretch of the school year.
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.
Cobb also appeared before Kingman City Council to criticize its mask mandate in September, according to the Mohave Valley Daily News, which quoted her as telling officials:
“I have heard from many local citizens of how divisive this proclamation has been to our community. This is a blanket violation of our constitutional rights and civil liberties.”
The Legislature’s approval of the ban on mandates – which drew support from no Democratic representative or senator – 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 a portion of Mesa. “The science shows that masks reduce the spread of diseases, not just COVID-19 but also other illnesses that are contagious via respiratory droplets, like the flu,” she added, contending “there is a noisy minority who want no mandates about face coverings – not anywhere.”
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 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.”
According to Jodie Snyder of Banner Health, “Virtually all hospitalized COVID-19 cases we are seeing now are younger people who have not been vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and it works.
“We encourage anyone who is eligible to get the vaccine as soon as possible. The highly contagious Delta variant is spreading in our community. The COVID vaccine will protect you and will help keep severity low for those who may get a breakthrough case. We recommend continuing to wear a mask in indoor settings where large numbers of people are gathering.”
The Arizona Department of Health Services said 49.6 percent of all eligible Arizonans had received at least one dose of the vaccine. When considering only those age 18 and older, the number in Arizona rose to 62.2 percent, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was good for 29th place among states and the District of Columbia.
Maricopa County data released last week show only 44.8 percent of all eligible Mesa residents are fully vaccinated and 50.3 percent have received one shot.
Some Mesa ZIP codes are well below those percentages, particularly 85203 with 37.5 percent full vaccinated and 85210 with 35.4 percent. Mesa’s 85215 has the highest rate of fully vaccinated people with 61.4 percent.
County data also show the COVID-19 transmission level within MPS boundaries is classified as “substantial” with 54 cases per 100,000 people and 9.3 percent positive new test results.
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 a 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.”
As for what happens if there is a time when virus spread levels, Epstein said districts have lost a valuable tool for protecting not just those on campus but the broader community.
“It is possible that many more children could end up with only distance-learning as an option because of this regrettable law,” she said. “It is the opposite of choices in schools. It is the opposite of local control. Most importantly, it is the opposite of safeguarding public health, the health of our children.”
Tribune Managing Editor Tom Scanlon contributed to this report.