The Tucson Unified School District is among a handful of districts in Arizona that is defying the state’s ban on a mandate on face coverings on school campuses.
TUSD is the only school in Pima County that has decided to outright ignore the state’s restrictions on mask mandates, with the TUSD board voting 4-0 to require everyone to wear a mask on TUSD property at an emergency meeting last Wednesday, Aug. 4.
But the Marana School District is encouraging students and staff to wear masks indoors as advised by the CDC, while the Amphi School District notes on its web page that masks are optional but the CDC does advise wearing them when indoors, whether a person has been vaccinated or not.
Before school began on Thursday, Aug. 5, the TUSD board decided to implement masking for all people on campus, motivated by the outbreaks seen in the Vail School District and with the growing number of pediatric cases.
As of Aug. 5, the Pima County Health Department received reports of 212 positive COVID cases in K-12 schools. In an updated Public Health Advisory, PCHD notes an increase in pediatric admission and ER visits since July 29.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Ducey is wanting to eliminate local control,” said TUSD Board member Adelita Grijalva. “The irony is it’s actually going to close more schools.”
Despite the decision, Grijalva said they have not discussed challenging the K-12 reconciliation bill, which prohibits districts from requiring masks, in court. Aside from requiring masks, TUSD will not be welcoming any visitors or volunteers.
TUSD joins The Phoenix Union High School District, which was the first district to announce it would enforce mask mandates. Most schools in Pima County began school last week without mask requirements.
Marana Unified School District is not planning to mandate masks, but will recommend unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals wear face coverings when indoors, said Director of Public Relations Alli Benjamin.
“Over the past week, we have seen a couple of school districts defy state law by mandating masks for all students, staff, and visitors. MUSD is not taking this stance,” Superintendent Dan Streeter said in an Aug. 5 letter to parents and staff. “We fully recognize the concerning number of cases coupled with revised recommendations from health officials across all levels of the government, urging individuals to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status. Per Arizona law ARS 15-342.05, mask mandates are not allowed, and we believe that it is important for MUSD to follow the advice of our legal counsel and continue to honor the law.”
Streeter emphasized they “strongly recommend” the use of masks and asked the community to help slow the spread and minimize
Catalina Foothills School District has opted to post signage around schools to encourage masking and has updated their mitigation plan to match the new CDC guidelines. Amphitheater School District will also follow Pima County and CDC guidelines.
Tucson family physician Dr. Cadey Harrel called on Ducey and the state legislature to overturn their decision and “do the right thing for our children, schools, and community by permitting schools to take necessary and proven measures, like simple mask wearing, to keep them safe.”
“Physicians spoke out against this dangerous law when it passed, since many students are not old enough to be vaccinated yet, and with the Delta variant spreading like wildfire, it’s even more critical for schools to be able to protect their students, educators, and staff,” said Harrel. “As a physician and mother, I want children to resume in-person learning safely, but frankly I’m scared about the suffering and death this year will bring.”
In the updated July 9 brief on transmission in schools, the CDC notes that when a combination of effective mitigation strategies, like masking and social distancing, are implemented and “strictly adhered to in the K-12 in-person learning environment, the risk of transmission in the school setting appears to be lower than or equivalent to the transmission risk in other community settings.”
Faced with several school outbreaks in Pima County since July 19 and with the inability of schools to require masks, UA epidemiologist Joe Gerald expects “frequent school-related outbreaks and accelerating community transmission.”
On July 30, Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen signed an order requiring schools report all positive COVID-19 cases and outlined strict guidelines on isolation and quarantine.
The order states all known or suspected cases should be sent home immediately and with 24 hours confirmation of case by PCHD schools must identify close contacts. Confirmed cases must isolate for 10 days at least and close contacts who can provide documentation of a completed COVID-19 vaccination series, meaning they are fully vaccinated, may return to school immediately if asymptomatic.
This policy contradicts a letter from the Governor’s office directing two schools in Pima County to change the language of their isolation and quarantine guidelines for stating fully vaccinated individuals would not be required to quarantine, as stated in the CDC guidance.
Vaccine clinics on school campuses
Last Friday the Pima County Health Department announced they would be partnering with public and private schools throughout the county to offer free mobile COVID-19 vaccination clinics on school campuses.
From Aug. 7 to Aug. 16, the county will host over a dozen clinics in the Vail School District, along with other clinics in the Marana and Tucson Unified School Districts, including a clinic at Marana’s Roadrunner Elementary School, 16651 W. Calle Carmela, from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 12.