Ducey, Catalina Foothills schools clash over COVID quarantines
District is in 'full compliance' with state law, administrators reply to reproach from Arizona governor's office
After Catalina Foothills Unified School District announced COVID-19 mitigation strategies for the coming school year — including quarantines for those with "close contact" with an infected person — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's office issued a sharp rebuke, saying the plan "does not comply with state law."
On Thursday, school officials shot back, writing they are "in full compliance" and demanding the governor's office withdraw the letter.
CFUSD was one of two Arizona school districts issued letters on Wednesday by Kaitlin Harrier, education policy advisor for the governor's office, who also admonished the Phoenix-area Peoria Unified School District for a 10-day quarantine policy.
Lawyers representing both districts shot back Thursday, writing that they were "in full compliance" with state law, and said the governor's office should "formally withdraw" the letter.
"Simply stated, a student's temporary quarantine in conformance with guidance published by the CDC, the Arizona Department of Health Services, and the Pima and Maricopa County Health does not violate the letter or spirit" of Arizona law, they wrote. "Instead, this practice, promotes public health."
Previously, officials at the Tucson-area district said they were "perplexed" by the message from the Ducey's office, adding that the letter appeared to be arguing that guidance announced by the Arizona Department of Health Services for K-12 schools violated a recent law passed by state legislators and signed into law Ducey on June 30.
The law, known as HB 2898, "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.
But officials will continue to "highly recommend" that masks be worn, especially as 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.
While the law does not specifically mention quarantines, Harrier complained that the district's quarantine policy would forced the district to send home "entire classrooms" of students under age 12 for up to 14 days, and "potentially on multiple occasions with no way to make up for that lost learning time."
"This policy must be rescinded immediately," Harrier wrote, adding that Arizona Department of Health Services is "prepared to provide guidance" on how to protect students and ensure they receive "the education that our state's Constitution promises them, in alignment with state law.
On Thursday, Denise Lowell-Britt with Udall Shumway PLC, and John C. Richardson with DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy, the law firms for the districts, replied to Harrier's letter, writing that nothing in Arizona's law restricts a district from "following guidance provided by federal, state, and local public health authorities with regard to students who have been exposed to COVID-19."
"It would not be appropriate or reasonable for school districts to ignore these public health standards," they wrote, and Arizona law "does not mandate that they do so."
"Like other public school districts, we do not write our own COVID-19 isolation and quarantine guidance policy. We use the practices set forth in the Arizona Department of Health Services Release from Isolation and Quarantine Guidance," said Julie Farbarik, the director of alumni and community relations at CFUSD. "We are perplexed by the letter, as it seems to indicate that the current ADHS guidance to K-12 schools is not in compliance with state law," she wrote.
"We will definitely follow up," with ADHS and the Pima County health officials, Farbarik wrote.
The district's policy regarding quarantine was part of a larger plan that guides how students and staff can navigate the 2021 school year which begins in early August for most Tucson-area schools. Among the requirements, CFUSD wrote that "any person who is in close contact with a person who tests positive for COVID-19 is subject to quarantine."
An administrator from a separate district in Pima County complained that state law "effectively ties our hands," while anther said that they remained in a "holding pattern" as the district tries to navigate how to manage infections among its students without using masks, requiring vaccinations, or quarantining.
Last week, the CDC updated its guidance for COVID-19 prevention in K-12 schools writing that masks "should be worn indoors" by those who are not fully vaccinated. "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."
The agency recommended that K-12 schools could consider the use of isolation and quarantines when necessary, but that such measures are unnecessary for those who are vaccinated.
However, Harrier said exempting students based on the CDC's recommendations would be at odds with state law.
"Specifically, the practice of instituting a mandatory 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated students who have a COVID-19 exposure, but exempting vaccinated students, is contrary to Arizona law," Harrier wrote. In her letter, Harrier referenced a section added to the state code as part of HB 2898, and quoted the law's limits on requirements on vaccinations and masks. She also referred to a section 5 of Arizona Parent Bill of Rights , which simply states "the right to make health care decisions for the minor child, including rights pursuant to sections."
"All Arizona children are entitled to public education, and adding on these qualifiers and keeping kids out of their classrooms for 10 days at a time contrary to the law is not in anyone's best interest," Harrier wrote.
Lowell-Britt and Richardson rejected this argument, writing that the Arizona Parent Bill of Rights is "inapplicable."
"While parents in Arizona are empowered to decide whether and where their children attend public school, they are not permitted to dictate which of the school's otherwise lawful health and safety procedures their children will follow once the decision to attend public school has been made."
"Parents and other community members have a right to expect that their local school district will do what it reasonably can to provide a safe educational environment for its students," Richardson and Lowell-Britt wrote. The districts are "committed to providing such an environment. Students who are required to quarantine based on exposure to COVID-19 are not abandoned."
"The CDC defines close contact as being within 6 feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes during a 24-hour period. Fully- vaccinated persons are not subject to quarantine," district officials wrote.
This fits with most guidance issued by school districts in Pima County, who have been forced to make masks optional, and cannot require vaccinations under the new law. "Masks are optional," the district wrote. "Each individual’s choice around mask-wearing will be respected. Masks will be available for those students who forget to bring a mask to school but would like to wear one."
On May 3, ADHS released new guidance for release and isolation that lays out a complex system of circumstances that could require up to a 14-day quarantine. Among the recommendations, ADHS wrote that "a person who had known close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case should quarantine for 14 days from their last exposure to the case. However, individuals may be eligible for shortened quarantine or may not be required to quarantine if certain conditions are met."
"While the COVID-19 vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. are all proven to be safe and effective, parents are the sole decision makers in the State of Arizona when it comes to the health and well-being of their children," Harrier wrote. "Please keep in mind, many parents are still awaiting full, official authorization of this vaccine from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before making their decision, and to date, children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine."
Other local districts have COVID quarantine policies
The new law does not specifically bar quarantines, and in fact, other districts in Pima County have some guidelines in place, especially for kids who have been exposed to COVID-19 and show symptoms of the disease, including fever, loss of smell, coughing and fatigue.
Sahuarita Unified School District issued a robust plan earlier this year that includes a flow-chart, outlining how parents should keep their child at home if they have symptoms for 14 days, with 24-hour waiting periods after symptoms have subsided.
Meanwhile, the Continental School District, which covers Green Valley, said they would not require masks at schools, however, because of a limited of buses, the district would require children to wear a mask when driven to and from school.
Tucson's largest school district, Tucson Unified School District, will continue to recommend masks for those who are not vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Amphi Public Schools said that if a student has been "in close contact" with someone infected with COVID-19, they should "remain away from school for 10 full days (returning on Day 11) after their last exposure with the COVID-19 positive individual as long as no symptoms occur from daily monitoring during the quarantine period."
Ducey highlights HB 2898
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.
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."
Thursday, ADHS reported another 1,014 cases, with 7 additional deaths from the virus.
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 Wednesday's new cases, 141 were in Pima County. Thursday, 87 additional reported infections in the county were added to the count, with 1 new death here.
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.