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Update: UA follows ASU in requiring COVID masks in classrooms despite Arizona law

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Update: UA follows ASU in requiring COVID masks in classrooms despite Arizona law

  • Robbins at a UA press conference in June.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comRobbins at a UA press conference in June.

The University of Arizona joined Arizona State University on Wednesday in announcing that face-coverings will be required on university campuses, in a challenge to a new state law meant to block any mask mandates.

The UA had earlier indicated that it would not require face masks in classrooms, but President Robert Robbins issued a brief statement Wednesday night saying that "based on the current health conditions and aligned with CDC guidance as well as our commitment to deliver in-person learning at the University of Arizona, we will require face masks be worn in all indoor spaces where it is not possible to adequately and continuously maintain social distance."

"We will share more details in the coming week," Robbins said.

ASU's requirement is "consistent with CDC guidelines for colleges and universities," officials at that school said. ASU's move covers teaching and research labs as well as other campus facilities.

Northern Arizona University will also require masks when social distancing is not possible, officials there said Wednesday.

The policies at Arizona's public universities are part of a larger, state-wide push for face-coverings in spite of a new Arizona state law that blocks local governments from instituting mask and vaccine requirements. 

In June, ASU said that students must be vaccinated before returning to campus, and required students to share their vaccination status, or they would face regular testing and a mask requirement.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey balked at that, and issued a executive order blocking the policy. Weeks later, the order was put into law by the state Legislature, along with a similar bill, HB 2898, that blocked the state's school districts from implementing their own mandates for masks or vaccines.

Last week, Tucson Unified School District became one of several school districts instituted mandates for face-coverings. On Tuesday, the governing board for Flagstaff Unified School District passed a mask mandate, joining Phoenix Elementary School District, Phoenix Union High School District, and Roosevelt Elementary Schools.

Unburdened by the law, which only covers public schools and institutions, private schools including Salpointe Catholic High and Brophy College Preparatory also created their own mandates for face-coverings.

On Monday, UA's Robbins said that his university would not follow TUSD's lead and challenge the state law. Instead Robbins urged face-coverings and vaccinations, even as he called the next few weeks a "critical moment" in the fight against COVID-19, adding that the Delta variant of the disease has been a "game changer."

Robbins said that after May's commencement ceremony he thought the university would "in a very different place."

"We are just not, so it's going to require intense work by all of us," he said. Robbins said that it was "disheartening to see vaccination and masking as topics of controversy," but that the UA would not follow the lead of ASU and TUSD and other districts and directly challenge the law. "I don't think that we, as the University of Arizona, plan to challenge state law," he said.

"This Delta variant has been a game changer," Robbins said. "We're concerned about this, and there are other variants coming after Delta, so the best way to counteract this is to get people vaccinated."

Wednesday's announcement marked in a shift in the UA's stance on whether to require face masks in classrooms.

During a virtual town hall Wednesday, NAU President José Luis Cruz Rivera said face-coverings would be required in classrooms, teaching spaces, research labs, and in other indoor and outdoor settings where physical distancing may not be possible.

Framing NAU's shift as one from a "mask-friendly campus" to a "mask smart" campus, Rivera pushed vaccinations, saying the "best chance we have to manage and mitigate the risks of this pandemic is to increase the number of eligible people who are vaccinated."

"Thousands of Jacks have already been vaccinated and I know many others are considering it," he said. "If you are one of those considering it, I implore you, I urge you, I plead with you to be vaccinated, sooner rather than later."

Earlier this week, Pima County's Board of Supervisors considered, but rejected, creating a mask mandate for all K-12 schools in the county. However, the county is requiring masks in county buildings. A proposal to require vaccinations was also shot down, and a policy to require health-care workers to be vaccinated was delayed as the supervisors sought a legal opinion.

ASU's move comes as COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in the state. On Wednesday, there were another 1,970 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the number of new infections hit 17,000 over the past week. The spike in cases has seen the largest number of new infections in six months, with new case counts at levels not seen since the beginning of February, and Pima County hitting "high" levels of community spread.

Maricopa County is also at "high" levels of community spread, as is much of the state. There were 6 new deaths reported from the coronavirus, with 117 deaths over the last week, Arizona Department of Health Services data indicated. Since the pandemic began,18,406 Arizonans have died from the novel coronavirus.

As the Delta variant continues to spike, health officials have advised that everyone — even those who've been vaccinated — wear masks while indoors in public.

National-level data shows that during the week of August 7, there are 42 people aged 17 or under hospitalized because of COVID-19, and 552 people aged 18-49 in hospitals. The last time the figures were this high was in October 2020, just before the major ramp up in cases during the winter.

The CDC has said that universities and colleges can avoid masks if the school-wide population is vaccinated, but that in cases were not everyone is fully vaccinated, institutions should include masks as a prevention strategy to mitigate infections.

In Arizona, about 17.2 percent of people under 18 are vaccinated, a number driven lower by the large number of kids under 12 who cannot be vaccinated yet against COVID-19 pending FDA approval. Meanwhile, about 49 percent of those 20-34 are vaccinated in Arizona. 

ASU said that there are 23 known positive cases of COVID-19 among the 21,522 faculty and staff, an infection rate of about .011 percent. Among students, there are 56 known cases compared to the student body of 60,752. Since last week, the number of COVID-19 infections among faculty and staff has increased around 44 percent, while the infection rate of students has increased 65 percent.

Face-coverings will be required in "class-quarter environments where physical distancing may not be possible," ASU officials said. This includes all clinical programs and centers that serve the general public, including ASU Health Centers, Child Development Laboratory, and Counselor Training Center, both on and off-campus.

Masks will also be required in meeting rooms, workshops, design or production studios, and other indoor settings where social distancing is not possible, the university said. "Additionally, consistent with CDC guidance, face covers may be required in some crowded outdoor settings or activities that involve sustained close contact with other people."

The university pushed for vaccinations, and said that ASU continues to provide free COVID-19 vaccines to students, faculty and staff. "Greater rates of vaccination are the best tool available to reduce the rate of transmission in the community, which could change the applicable face covering guidance," university officials wrote.

Meanwhile, GOP state legislators argued that local governments were usurping state laws by creating and enforcing mask mandates, and called such measures "illegal activity," and they called on Ducey to launch legal action against the districts and withhold federal dollars.

In a letter signed by 26 state legislators, all Republicans, pushed for Ducey to withhold federal funding from schools that are "non-compliant with the law," give money to parents who have students "trapped" in school districts that have mandates, and send a notice to parents explaining the "abundance of school choice options" under state law.

"It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law. It must not be allowed to stand. Any local government that willfully and intentionally flaunts state law must be held accountable," the state Republicans claimed.

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