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On June 30, the Arizona Legislature approved the budget for next fiscal year, which bans public schools throughout the state from requiring masks or COVID-19 testing. This ban comes a few weeks after Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order banning state colleges and universities from doing the same. The ban does not affect private schools, and has already taken effect.

Almost immediately after the budget was approved, some doctors and public health professionals weighed in on the subject, arguing the ban makes “no scientific or public health sense.” Shortly after the ban was enacted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines stating that vaccinated teachers and students do not need to wear masks inside the classroom. However, this leaves Arizona’s 600,000 students between pre-school and 6th grade who are ineligible for vaccination in a gray area between national guidelines and state legislation.

“As a public health expert, I continue to recommend mask use in schools. Recent research shows COVID spreads less in schools where teachers and staff wear masks… It is no longer a matter of debate: Masks work,” said Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona. “When politicians ignore science and evidence, they’re only giving COVID-19 time to mutate, regroup, spread and sicken more of our neighbors.”

Jacobs spoke during a conference with other public health professionals organized by the Committee to Protect Health Care, a national group of doctors and healthcare professionals. Unsurprisingly, all speakers at the talk spoke against the mask ban.

“The decision to prohibit these schools from requiring masks be worn is quite reckless, dangerous and short-sighted. The decision is also not informed by science or evidence, and politicians are making this decision when Arizona just in the last 14 days saw a 16% jump in COVID-19 cases,” said Dr. Cadey Harrel, a family physician in Tucson and the president of Agave Community Health and Wellness. “What politicians have done by banning schools from implementing safety protocols like masks, is put people at risk and stifle local decision making with a one-size-fits-all, top-down approach. This completely strips local municipalities and governing bodies from implementing their own policies that are rooted in actual science.”

Harrel argues that because the law does not apply equally to private schools, it unfairly affects lower- and middle-class families who may now see more COVID cases. She says the issue is a “social determinant of health” that will worsen the pandemic’s impacts on minority and working-class families who have already been hit hardest by COVID.

“As both a parent and a physician, I’m incredibly concerned about this. The first day this was implemented, I received an email from my child’s school, stating there have been a couple confirmed cases in her classroom,” Harrel said. “This is not safe, and this is not evidence-based policy. This is putting our children at risk, and for what?”

Vaccinations are currently only available for children 12 and older. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, only 13% of Arizonans under 20 have been vaccinated. A common point of argument is that even if masks were required in schools to protect unvaccinated students, would elementary-aged kids properly and consistently keep their masks on? Harrel argues, for the most part, yes.

“I have a 4-year-old who has been using one for the past year without any issues,” Harrel said. “If we teach our children to use masks, they will use masks. Just like we teach our children to be kind to others, use the toilet, or anything else. They will learn to do those things, but we need to lead by example.”

Daily COVID cases in Arizona have remained at a relatively consistent low since the beginning of March, averaging around 700 new cases and a dozen deaths per day. Compare this to the peak in January, when the state saw more than 10,000 cases and 150 deaths per day.

“I feel as though we’re sliding into a place where we’re only thinking about death as an undesirable endpoint of infection, which of course it is, but I do think that if we are seeing 70 or 80% of symptoms that are lasting 60 days and more after infection, then that makes me wonder what is going to happen with kids,” Jacobs said. “They’ve definitely exhibited having a less severe course of disease, there’s no question about that, but what we don’t know is what the potential long-term, downstream effects are going to be. And that is why I’m a strong advocate of using caution right now.”

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