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Pima College requires COVID masks on campus, joining Arizona's universities

Pima Community College will require face-coverings on campus in most indoor spaces starting next week, joining the University of Arizona and the state's other public universities in challenging a new law meant to block any mask mandates.

In an announcement on Facebook, PCC officials said Thursday that masks must be worn in "all indoor spaces where it is not possible to adequately and continuously maintain social distancing."

The requirement begins Monday, August 16.

"The masking requirement includes classrooms, labs, student learning spaces, offices, meeting areas, and any indoor areas designated by posted signage, and applies to all employees, students, visitors and vendors," PCC said.

"Throughout the pandemic, Pima Community College has been committed to protecting the health and safety of students and employees while delivering the highest level of educational services possible," officials wrote.

The community college, which hosts about 75,000 students across five campuses, said that it made its decision in part to bring PCC into alignment with "recent actions" by the state's public universities. On Wednesday, Arizona State University said that masks would be required on campus, and the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University quickly fell in behind.

"Based on the changing health conditions and in alignment with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Arizona Department of Health Services, the Pima County Health Department and recent actions by public universities in Arizona, effective Monday, August 16, 2021, we will require face masks to be worn in all indoor spaces where it is not possible to adequately and continuously maintain social distance," the community college said.

The policies at Arizona's public universities and Pima Community College 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.

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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 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."

However, on Wednesday, Robbins put out a brief statement 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.

And, 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."

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"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."

Grand Canyon University remains an outlier, and said in a statement published Aug. 2 that "social distancing and face coverings will not be required on campus, including the classroom, whether you are vaccinated or not, although students who wish to wear a mask in various settings are free to do so." 

However, the private school has it is "continuing  to monitor the status of COVID-19 in Arizona."

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.

However, the board did move to require masks in county buildings.

PCC's move comes as COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in the state. On Thursday, there were another 2,970 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the number of new infections hit more 18,000 over the past seven days. 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.

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.

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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