Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded his order requiring masks in schools, but local school districts say they will keep the mandate in place.
Ducey’s order rescinds the fifth paragraph of Executive Order 2020-51 issued in July, which required school districts and charter schools to implement policy on face coverings for students and staff. The new order allows schools to implement their own policies.
“Nearly 2 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with many teachers and school faculty now fully vaccinated after being some of the first in line for vaccine prioritization,” he said. “Teachers, families and students have acted responsibly to mitigate the spread of the virus and protect one another, and our school leaders are ready to decide if masks should be required on their campuses. We will continue to work with public health professionals and Arizona’s schools as more students return to the classroom and our state moves forward.”
The order is in line with CDC and ADHS recommendations, according to a statement from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
“Across the state, almost 4.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered,” said ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ. “Many families and communities are further protected from COVID-19, and our schools are ready to decide their next steps when it comes to masks. We encourage all Arizonans to get the vaccine — it’s safe, effective and absolutely free to the public.”
Both the CDC and ADHS continue to recommend mask usage. In ADHS’s K-12 Guidance for COVID-19, updated on Wednesday, language was changed to reflect the new order. It states that “Regardless of the level of community transmission, all schools should use and layer mitigation strategies. Schools should prioritize the following key mitigation strategies: Universal and correct use of masks . . . ” Previously it stated, “Universal and correct use of masks is required.”
The guidance still lists physical distancing and handwashing as other key mitigation strategies.
After the order, Pima County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Francisco Garcia reminded schools officials that regardless of Ducey's order, Pima County Board of Supervisors Resolution 2020-96 is still in effect. The resolution, passed in December, requires the use of face coverings in a public space and when an individual cannot maintain a “continuous distance of at least six feet.”
“Now more than ever, it is critical that we continue mask use and other mitigation measures until we are able to achieve at least 75% vaccine coverage in Pima County," Garcia wrote in his email. "We encourage schools to continue review and refine their mitigation strategies as the science evolves. Our health department stands ready to provide support and assistance so that we can get all our kids back to the classroom for a near normal fall.”
While more than 4 million vaccines have been administered in the state, only about 28% of the state's population has been fully vaccinated, and 26% in Pima County.
With recommendation from local health departments, schools across Pima County notified parents that they would be maintaining their mask policy, including Marana Unified School District and Amphitheater Unified School District.
“MUSD opted to keep the face covering requirement in place as it has been an effective mitigation strategy for preventing the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” said MUSD Director of PR and Engagement Alli Benjamin. “Overall, the majority of families have been very supportive and understanding of the face covering mandate, and our teachers are appreciative as well.“
She said at this time the district plans to keep the mask policy in place through the end of the school year. Amphitheater Unified School District will also maintain its face covering requirement “at least until the end of the school year.”
Dr. Cadey Harrel CEO of Agave Community Health & Wellness and a family physician in Tucson, strongly opposed Ducey's decision, calling it “dangerously ignorant,” in a statement released Tuesday.
“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. With multiple variants already spreading, and children under 16 still unable to be immunized, we could see the emergence of strains that can evade vaccines if we don’t remain vigilant and mask,” said Harrel. “We should have learned by now that rushing to remove protections across the state before enough Arizonans have a defense against the virus, will lead to more unnecessary deaths. If Gov. Ducey really wants to get back to normal, now is not the time to cut corners for political gain — it is time to listen to the health experts and data and do the work to truly overcome the virus and save the lives of our neighbors, friends, and family.”
Ducey’s decision also brought a sharp retort from Arizona Public Health Association Executive Director Will Humble, who served as Arizona health director in Gov. Jan Brewer's administration.
Humble said Ducey and Christ were being dishonest about CDC guidelines.
“That statement is a lie and they know it,” Humble wrote. “CDC’s guidance and recommendations for schools makes it clear that they urge schools to use “universal and correct usage of masks” in the K-12 school setting.”
Humble called Ducey and Christ “a piece of work. They couldn’t even wait for the remainder of the school year to finish with the existing mask policies in place. Instead, they rescinded with only 23 more days of school left in most districts. They have really made some tremendously bad policy decisions over the last year. Now we can add another one to the list.”
Humble said it was “shameful” that Ducey and Christ kept Superintendent didn't inform Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman about the plan to rescind mask mandates.
Hoffman also blasted the decision.
“Today’s abrupt removal of the mask mandate in schools is just one example in a long time of decisions that have resulted in Arizona’s embarrassing response to a virus that has claimed over 17,000 lives and impacted thousands more.”
Hoffman pointed out that children younger than 16 are not eligible for the vaccine and the masking requirements have helped schools reopen in recent months.
“While vaccines hold the promise of a return to normalcy, letting up on 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.
She added that the decision “destabilizes school communities as they end what has arguably been the most challenging year for education. I encourage school leaders and board members to work with their communities to make transparent, evidence-based decisions that build trust in the safety of our schools.”
Local Mask Mandate for Businesses
Businesses may be able to ignore local mask mandates after Ducey signed and passed House Bill 2770 on April 9.
The bill states businesses in the state would not be required to enforce mask mandates established by local jurisdictions.
This follows Ducey’s March 25 executive order, which lifted restrictions on businesses, allowing them to set their own mask requirements.
While the bill will not go into effect until 90 days after the session ends, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry believes they will be able to continue enforcing their mask mandate even after the bill comes into effect, according to his April 16 memo.
Lawmakers are still debating budget details and other legislation, so it remains unclear when the session will end.
He requested legal assistance to review the bill and answer questions on the county’s ability to enforce their mask mandate after the bill comes into effect. The Pima County Attorney’s Office is still working on a response, according to Pima County Attorney’s Office spokesman Joe Watson.
Huckelberry said the county would consider lifting the mask mandate when COVID-19 cases fall below the threshold of 10 per 100,000 cases for at least two weeks.
During the weeks of April 4 and 11, the county was above the threshold at 55 and 56 cases per 100,000, respectively.
“As you can see we remain significantly above the threshold as to when masks may not be required,” wrote Huckelberry.