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As Arizona college classes start, staff union sues to uphold mask mandates

United Campus Workers joins lawsuit seeking to toss out state ban on mask & vaccination requirements

As classes began at the University of Arizona on Monday, a union representing school employees is joining a lawsuit over the state law that undercuts mask mandates at the state's three public universities.

The lawsuit attempts to remove three bills, passed as part of the K-12 education budget measure, that were signed into law in June that includes prohibitions against mask mandates and vaccination requirements.

Members of the union, the United Campus Workers of Arizona, joined a lawsuit filed on August 13 by a coalition of  educational groups,  including the Arizona School Boards Association, the Children's Action Alliance, and the Arizona Education Association.

The lawsuit argues that a 200-page K-12 education budget, signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey on June 30, violates the state Constitution on equal protection grounds, as well as the provision that requires legislation to be focused on a single subject.

The UCWAZ said they "strongly support" the lawsuit, writing that "provisions in the laws banning mask and vaccine mandates will do serious and irreparable harm to its members, who include workers at higher education institutions across the state." 

As the law was challenged, schools boards in Arizona revolted, passing their own mask mandates as the Delta variant of COVID-19 has driven new cases  throughout the state, pushing most Arizona counties to "high" levels of transmission and creating thousands of new cases at a rate not seen since the winter.

"If this legislation is permitted to stand, I, along with the membership of UCWAZ, the other faculty and staff at our universities, our students, as well as our families, and the larger communities where we work and live, will be exposed to a higher risk of contracting COVID-19," said Laurie Stoff, a professor with Arizona State University's Honor College. "Many will be at risk of serious illness or death," she said.

Richard Newhauser, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, who teaches English at ASU, said he was "not only worried about my own health and safety," but that he was "worried about the safety of my friends, colleagues, and students."

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"None of them should be faced with the prospect of working in a riskier environment due to this unconstitutional law. Nor should my colleagues and friends be faced with the prospect of bringing infection home to their spouses, children, or aged parents," he said.

Despite the state law, on August 11, the University of Arizona — joined by Northern Arizona University — followed ASU's lead and implemented a mask mandate, requiring face-coverings in classrooms and other indoor spaces.

UA President Robert C. Robbins had originally said the UA would not require masks, nor challenge the law that blocked vaccine mandates, saying that instead the university would rely on a "layered approach" including voluntary testing and quarantine dorms.

On Monday, Robbins outlined the UA's new approach, which includes a mask mandate.

"Our expectation has been that masks would be worn by our students and employees in such indoor settings," Robbins said. He added that since last week, "all three state universities have announced formalization of indoor masking requirements consistent with this expectation, following review of existing state law and in consultation with the Arizona Board of Regents."

"I am pleased that we have arrived together at this joint mitigation step centered on campus safety, consistent with the law," he said. 

Robbins said there was "some confusion with the governor's order and state law," but that he wanted it to be clear that "we are working closely with the Arizona Board of Regents, and this joint mitigation step is centered on campus safety."

"The steps we have taken are consistent with the law," he said.

Robbins said that about 48 percent of students had uploaded documents showing they were vaccinated against COVID-19, but that he expected the actual number of vaccinated students to be much higher, noting that based on a survey around 83 percent of students said they planned to be vaccinated. Another study in April showed that 82 percent of student surveyed said they had received at least one dose, he said.

"The Delta variant obviously poses serious challenges, almost like a new virus. if we mask up, get as many people vaccinated as possible, and remain vigilant, we can minimize it's impact, reduce pressure on our local hospitals, and enable the university to remain open," Robbins said.

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Ostensibly a bill focused on the state's budget, the K-12 education bill also contained new policy provisions that blocked public school and the state's public universities from requiring face-coverings or vaccinations as a bulwark against the spread of COVID-19, as well as prohibiting schools from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

The Legislature, the lawsuit read, passed three bills with "titles claiming that the contents of the act relate to health or education 'budget reconciliation,' yet the contents of each bill include substantive policy provisions that have nothing to do with the budget." 

The bills, HB 2898, SB 1824, and SB 1825, were all included as part of the overall budget.

The lawsuit also contended that SB 1819 was passed as a bill based on state budget procedures, but included a host of worries about elections that have become a Republican bugbear. With a title "claiming that its contents relate to 'budget procedures' and 'budget reconciliation,'" the bill also includes "substantive policy legislation that has nothing to do with the budget," the group argued. "Beyond that, SB 1819 covers a hodgepodge of completely unrelated subjects in violation of the single subject rule."

They also argued that HB 2898 violates Arizona’s equal protection clause because it restricts public and charter schools, but allows private schools like Brophy College Preparatory, to have a free reign to decide implement mask mandates and vaccination requirements.

The legislature retroactively applied the bill to after June 30, which the group said was "curiously" added.

The UCWAZ pushed for a hearing and a preliminary injunction blocking the legislation entirely.

A hearing in the ongoing case is scheduled for Wednesday morning.

In a parallel case, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that the law could not go into effect until Sept. 29,  ignoring the bill's retroactive clause.

In his 3-page opinion, Judge Randall H. Warner wrote that the law that blocks mask mandates "has not yet become effective," ruling that in Arizona, new laws are "effective 90 days after the legislative sessions ends, which is September 29 this year."

'...Nearly half our country is vulnerable.'

Robbins said that the UA would "closely monitor health conditions" and warned that there was "significant pressure on critical health-care resources" because of COVID-19. He pushed the campus to "do everything we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect our community."

"This includes basic public health measures like getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and testing regularly," Robbins said.

Robbins pushed hard for people to get tested, and said that the UA's goal was to get up to 2,000 tests per day, equivalent to the testing regime the university had in the spring. He also added that the UA would continue to test wastewater, and if COVID-19 was detected coming from a building, including one of the high-rises near campus, the school would test all the residents and isolate those who tested positive.

"We have to find out who is positive, and get them out of the general population," he said. "The most dangerous people are asymptomatic people," Robbins said, who don't know they are carrying COVID-19 and spreading it.

Dr. Richard Carmona, former U.S. surgeon general and a distinguished professor in Public Health, showed slides about the overall vaccination rate. "You know there is nothing there to be happy about, the fact is nearly half of our country is still vulnerable," he said.

He added that the UA was adding incentives to get people vaccinated, with the hope to "push over those few people who are suffering from vaccine hesitancy."

"Whatever the reason is, we recognize that it is not a solution to the bigger problem of bad information, of confusion, and so on," Carmona said, adding that the university is "doing everything we can within the law that has been given to us by the state of Arizona to make these good decisions, and be able to incentivize people to get vaccinated."

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Carmona said that he and Robbins had spoken to the governor and the Board of Regents, telling them that "this is not only about the university, this is about keeping our businesses open, keeping our schools open, keeping our classes open," Carmona said. "We don't want to go back to where we have to start taking away different opportunities, and closing down certain parts of society. We can't afford to do that, and we need the public's help us get vaccinated. It's the best path to be able to recover from this."

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The University of Arizona will require masks and wants students and staff to get tested for COVID-19 as the university opened for in-person classes Monday.

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