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Masks 'optional' at TUSD after Republicans ban schools from requiring face-coverings or vaccines

Masks will be optional in the Tucson Unified School District this fall, following a bill passed in June by GOP legislators blocking Arizona schools from requiring face coverings as a way to mitigate COVID-19 infections. The bill also bars schools from requiring vaccinations against coronavirus.

But officials will "highly recommend" that masks be worn. The number of new reported COVID-19 infections in Arizona over the past three days is nearly twice the rate of new cases of a month ago, state data shows, with the more infectious Delta variant spreading throughout the state.

In an email to parents and staff sent Wednesday, TUSD's Superintendent Dr. Gabriel Trujillo quoted Arizona's HB 2898, which went into effect on July 1. 

The bill, Trujillo wrote "prohibits counties, cities, towns, schools, and school districts from requiring students or staff to wear a face-covering during school hours and on school property." The bill also restricts schools from requiring vaccinations against COVID-19 for students and staff, and would fine school districts and charter schools if they tried to enforce mandates. 

"While this decision means students and staff no longer are required to wear a mask in Tucson Unified School District, our district along with federal, state, and local health officials highly recommend a mask be worn by anyone who is not vaccinated," Trujillo wrote. "Thus, masks are optional." 

HB 2898 was one of a stack of bills signed by Ariz. Gov. Doug Ducey at the tail end of the state's legislative session. In a news release touting several bills signed into law, Ducey said that the new law "requires district schools to maintain open enrollment processes that are truly open and fair so all Arizona families can easily access the school that best fits their learning needs — with minimal paperwork or hoops to jump through." 

"Educational freedom is essential," Ducey said. "In Arizona, parents are in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing the best education for their child — not the government." 

"This legislation also prevents schools from requiring student and staff vaccinations, and makes it clear that wearing a face covering at school is an individual choice — not a mandate," Ducey said. Ducey also signed a similar bill, SB 1825, that keeps public colleges and universities from establishing their own mandates. 

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Earlier in the year, Ducey removed two mandates that required masks in Arizona's schools, a move that the elected Democrat who is the state superintendent of schools, Kathy Hoffman, called "destabilizing." Ducey's order on April 19 cited increasing vaccinations in the state, but did not block schools from instituting and enforcing mask mandates, shifting the onus to individual districts. 

However, while the governor said that school districts and charter schools still maintained "the right to institute and enforce policies to mitigate against COVID-19 spread, including the use of masks," the Republican governor signed HB 2898 into law on June 30.

Statewide data shows that just 14 percent of those aged 20 or below have received one or more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. While those 12-15 were authorized to begin receiving the vaccine in May, the FDA has not approved coronavirus vaccinations for kids under 12. 

This leaves more than 24,000 kids in TUSD alone unable to receive a vaccination against the virus, according to enrollment data from the district.

Throughout the pandemic, more than 149,000 people aged 20 or below were infected by COVID-19, including about 19,000 in Pima County, state data shows.

Wednesday, more than 1,900 new COVID-19 infections were reported by ADHS. Officials said the spike was caused by "an electronic reporting issue that lowered case numbers the past two days."

Monday, 122 new reported coronavirus cases and 2 deaths were reported by ADHS. Tuesday, 345 new cases and 20 more deaths were added to the count. Wednesday's new report included another 21 Arizonans who have died from the disease — among the 18,076 who have died from COVID-19 in the state.

Of those new cases, 141 were in Pima County.

Of the nearly 13,000 new Arizona cases reported in June, 92.4 percent "were among those who weren't vaccinated or weren't fully vaccinated," state health director Dr. Cara Christ said Wednesday. "All this points to a fundamental truth: Vaccines are demonstrating their effectiveness at preventing serious cases and deaths from COVID-19 and providing the strongest possible argument for the benefits of vaccination."

"We’ve reached the point where severe cases and deaths from COVID-19 are almost entirely preventable," Christ said.

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CDC recommends masks in schools

Meanwhile, the CDC continues to recommend masks in school for anyone not fully vaccinated, as one of several mitigation strategies, including physical distancing, screening for COVID-19 infections through testing, contact tracing, and hand-washing. "Consistent and correct mask use by people who are not fully vaccinated is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained," the CDC said. 

"Many schools serve children under the age of 12 who are not eligible for vaccination at this time," the CDC wrote. "Therefore, this guidance emphasizes implementing layered prevention strategies (e.g., using multiple prevention strategies together consistently) to protect people who are not fully vaccinated, including students, teachers, staff, and other members of their households." 

Trujillo said that TUSD's next Governing Board meeting—slated for July 20—will include a discussion about safety recommendations for the district's schools. 

"While the HB2898 will no longer allow the district to determine masking protocols, we recognize there are a number of families that are concerned about returning to school in person," he said, adding that TUSD will give parents the option to sign up online school through the district's "virtual academy." 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

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