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Ducey rescinds mask mandate for Az schools, but Tucson districts are keeping requirements

Highlighting the state's vaccination rate, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey continued to dismantle a series of mandates he put in place last year to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, rescinding an order that required face coverings in the state's public schools.

However, districts in the Tucson area immediately said they would still maintain mask requirements through at least the end of the school year.

In a statement released on Monday, Ducey lifted two 2020 mandates that required masks for most school children, teachers and staff. This includes not only his July 2020 order, which required schools to develop policies to "facilitate the safe return" to the classroom at the end of the summer, but also a November 2020 order from Dr. Cara Christ, the director of the state health department, which required wearing masks in schools.

The state superintendent of Arizona's schools, Kathy Hoffman, called the governor's decision "abrupt" and "destabilizing."

Ducey's order does not block schools from instituting and enforcing mask requirements, but instead shifts the onus to individual districts. "K-12 school districts and charter schools still maintain the right to institute and enforce policies to mitigate against COVID-19 spread, including the use of masks," the Republican governor said. 

"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," Ducey 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."

School districts around the Tucson area quickly announced Monday that they would maintain mask mandates, including Tucson Unified, Catalina Foothills and Flowing Wells. 

"The Tucson Unified School District will not be changing its requirement for face masks/face coverings at our schools and on our properties," said Karla Escamilla, a spokeswoman for the district. 

Catalina Foothills School District said that the mask requirement "remains in place at least through the end of the school year." 

"Masks are and will continue to be an important part of our mitigation plan. Thank you for your continued support of our prevention strategies, which will enable us to finish the school year strong, health and safe," CFSD said. 

Flowing Wells School District said that it had "no advance notice of this action and is currently reviewing" Ducey's order. However, the district will continue to require masks, said David Baker, the superintendent of FWSD. 

Ducey framed his new order as being aligned with the CDC's guidance, noting that on March 29, the Arizona Department of Health Services adopted CDC recommendations.

However, according to the linked website, ADHS notes that a key "mitigation strategy" is mask-wearing. "Universal and correct use of masks is required," wrote ADHS.

The CDC continues to promote wearing masks in schools, noting that the agency's "pathway for schools to provide in-person instruction safely" includes the "consistent use of prevention strategies, including universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing." 

"All schools should implement and layer prevention strategies and should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing," the CDC notes.

Ducey's office did not respond when asked to explain what specific CDC guidance the governor is "in alignment" with in lifting the requirement.

Teachers have been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine for months, and were included in the first few phases of vaccine distribution, however, most school-age children cannot receive a vaccination. And, data from a survey of teachers at Tucson Unified School District in March found that more than 89 percent of teachers had received or planned to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, and of those about 49 percent had already received their second shot.

"Across the state, almost 4.5 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered," said 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."

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Ducey's move comes as Arizona case rates remain "stuck" between substantial and moderate risk, and a 3-month-long streak of decrease cases has also stalled, said Dr. Joe Gerald, a researcher at the University of Arizona's Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, in an April 9 report on COVID-19. 

On Monday, the state reported 692 new cases of COVID-19. 

Out of approximately 854,000 cases in the state, about 138,000 affected people under the age of 20. And, in Pima County, only about 18,000 people under 20 were affected by COVID-19. Of those, 29 people under 20 died from COVID-19 infections, according to figures from ADHS. 

"Today's abrupt removal of the mask mandate in schools is just one example in a long line of decisions that have resulted in Arizona's embarrassing response to a virus that has claimed over 17,000 lives and impacted thousands more," said Superintendent of Public Instruction Hoffman. 

Children under 16 are still ineligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and the CDC still recommends universal masking in public schools, Hoffman said.

"Universal masking—along with other key mitigation strategies—has allowed schools to safely operate during a pandemic," she said. "While vaccines hold the promise of a return to normalcy, letting up on other mitigation strategies now just increases the transmission at a time when we should be doing everything possible to  keep students and their families safe." 

The announcement "destabilizes school communities as they end what has arguably been the most challenging year for education," Hoffman said, adding that she would encourage school leaders and boards to make "transparent, evidence-based decisions that build trust in the safety of our schools." 

"It's so frustrating, it's so absolutely frustrating," said Joe Thomas, the president for the Arizona Education Association. "We're seeing again Ducey failing to show leadership and in this case, he's putting Arizona students and school employees at greater risk. For over a year, educators have been working with parents, student and the community to create a safe learning environment to get us through the pandemic." 

"With 4-5 weeks left, this decision now is all risk and no upside," Thomas said, noting that in Michigan a variant of COVID-19 known as B.1.1.7 is likely the cause of a new wave of cases. While researchers are still trying to understand the relationship between B.1.1.7 and children, there are signs that the more virulent form of the virus could increase drive up COVID-19 cases, and that community transmission might make kids more likely to get the new strain of COVID-19. 

"We've seen bad decisions before, and this one is particular reckless," Thomas said. "We encourage local boards to do what the governor has failed to do: show leadership, let's keep the masks on. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Ariz. Governor Doug Ducey during a press conference at the University of Arizona vaccination site on March 24.

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