Although Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded his executive order that made mask usage mandatory for students and staff, many Phoenix-area schools are sticking with their mask requirements.
At least for now.
The governor’s abrupt action Monday set off a flurry of emailed letters and robo phone calls to parents advising them of their school’s mask policy. Most made it clear masks would be required on campus.
The governor’s action also drew sharp criticism from medical professionals who said the governor wrongly characterized his actions as in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC has eased social distancing guidelines for schools (from six feet to three), but it has not rolled back mask recommendations.
Dr. Cadey Harrel, CEO of Agave Community Health & Wellness in Tucson, called Ducey’s move “dangerously ignorant.”
“Lifting simple measures that work to curb the spread of the virus, like mask-wearing, is one of the worst things Gov. Ducey can do right now,” Harrel wrote in a news release. She noted that with COVID-19 variants spreading in the community, and children under age 16 not yet able to be vaccinated, easing mask requirements puts students and faculty at risk.
And without naming any names, the Maricopa County Public Health Department noted in a daily COVID-19 update that it is still seeing outbreaks in K-12 schools, with students accounting for 72% of all school-related cases.
Some school boards announced plans to discuss at governing board meetings whether to stay with the mask-on policy through next month, when the school year ends.
And at least a few school districts quickly dropped their mask requirement.
“Today, we saw a lot more smiles than we usually do,” said Sean Rickert, superintendent of the Pima Unified School District in southeastern Arizona.
The rural district’s board had linked its policy to the executive order Ducey issued in July that required mask usage on school campuses. When Ducey did away with the order, it was masks optional at the 1,000-student district.
Rickert said high school students showed up Tuesday without masks, having heard of Ducey’s directive through social media. Elementary students soon shed their masks when they were told mask usage was now optional.
“They were very happy,” Rickert said.
The J.O. Combs Unified School District in the far southeast Valley, the Prescott Unified School District and Great Hearts Academies, a charter school chainin the Valley, announced mask usage would be optional.
On Tuesday, about two-thirds of the students and staff at J.O. Combs schools continued to use masks, said Kayla Fulmer, the district’s director of marketing and community relations.
“The response has been mixed, as it has been throughout the pandemic,” Fulmer said. She said she was aware of two parents who, uncomfortable with the prospect of sending their children to school where masks were not required, resorted to online lessons.
Across the metro area, many school officials made it clear mask requirements would stay in place, most likely through the end of the school year.
Officials at the Scottsdale Unified School District said they were sticking with masks, noting there are 28 days left in the school year.
“While we know there are people who would like us to remove the mask requirement now, SUSD’s 15 ZIP codes remain in the substantial transmission category, and the number of cases has been slowly increasing over the past few weeks,” district officials wrote.
Likewise, the Glendale Elementary School District community also is in the “substantial transmission” category, prompting school officials to keep the mask requirement.
While retaining mask protocols, some districts are planning meetings to discuss the changing direction from the state. The Chandler Unified board is meeting Wednesday; and neighboring Gilbert Unified has a board meeting scheduled Thursday. The Dysart Unified board is convening next week.
This is the pattern across most metro districts, said Chris Kotterman, government relations director for the Arizona School Boards Association.
The governor’s action resonated all the way to Washington, D.C. At a White House news briefing, presidential spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked about Ducey’s move.
“We certainly recommend any state and governor follow public health guidelines,” Psaki said, noting that masks are one of the “clear steps” recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The president of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics said he feared that parents and schools will interpret Ducey’s action as a sign that the pandemic is over when it is not.
“We know that efforts such as masks, respiratory hygiene, hand washing, and social distancing have been effective tools for school at mitigating infectious risk to our children and community, and we must not let our guard down now,” Dr. Jason Vargas said in a statement.
Reach the reporter at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl. Arizona Republic reporters Joshua Bowling, Renata Cló, Paulina Pineda, Taylor Seely and Alison Steinbach also contributed to this story.
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