A judge is expected to hear arguments on August 13 in a lawsuit filed by a teacher in the Phoenix Union High School District over its revived mandatory mask policy. Governor Doug Ducey signed SB 1826 in June, the education budget bill, which includes an amendment prohibiting schools from requiring masks.
Clashes between school districts and red state governments are popping up around the country, as school administrators assert that a surge in COVID-19 is occurring due to the delta variant. However, many state officials and legislators say they prefer to make masks optional due to the harm they can cause to students, especially when worn for long periods of time.
Biology teacher Douglas Hester filed the lawsuit against the school district, its governing board and superintendent Chad Gestson, citing the conflict with state law. The school contends that the law isn’t scheduled to go into effect until 90 days after the legislature adjourns, September 28. However, A.R.S. 15-342.05 includes a clause making it retroactive to June 30.
Some schools around the country are re-implementing mandatory mask policies, citing a surge in COVID-19, but cases have barely increased in Arizona in recent weeks. Phoenix Union’s policy requires all students, teachers, and administration to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. The only exceptions are for medical reasons. The district resumed classes on Monday.
Rep. Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale), who wrote the language banning mask mandates, criticized the schools. “School district administrations are acting like activists; they’re not upholding the law,” he told ABC News 15. State lawmakers are now talking about penalizing school districts, such as by taking away their funding for not complying with the law.
Ducey’s spokesman C.J. Karamargin said last week, “School administrators should be doing everything they can to encourage eligible students and staff to get vaccinated, not break state law.”
Rep. Jake Hoffman (R-Mesa) was so concerned about forcing masks on children that he along with several other legislators refused to vote for the bill unless it included the mask language.
“The Arizona Legislature, with the governor concurring, very intentionally enacted the laws at hand to protect Arizonans and Arizona children from the threat of government mandating them to forcibly wear a mask or be injected with a vaccine. It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law,” Hoffman said.
In Florida, Broward County Public Schools reversed their mask mandate after Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order threatening to withhold state funds from schools that implement one. The University of Wisconsin-Madison is headed for a showdown with the Wisconsin State Legislature after violating a new state law prohibiting mask mandates without the legislature’s approval.
The CDC instituted a new recommendation for masks in schools last week, even for the vaccinated (children age 12 and up are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine). However, a study the CDC cited authoritatively that was led by epidemiologist Dr. Karen Hoeg of 4,876 grades K-12 students in Wisconsin last fall found very low rates of COVID-19 where masks were not required at recess and often not worn during small group instruction where teachers sat close to students.
A study for the medical journal medRxiv by doctors found no correlation in schools between COVID-19 and mask mandates. Another study done in Canada analyzed COVID-19 cases in the three largest provinces. Although one province kept schools open with no masks, a second kept schools open with masks, and one closed schools entirely, all three had indistinguishable numbers of COVID-19 cases since November.
Arizona’s new law also bans schools from requiring the COVID-19 vaccine. The law does not apply to private schools. Four other school districts are following Phoenix Union and requiring masks. The other four are Phoenix Elementary District, Osborn School District, Roosevelt School District, and Tucson Unified.
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