Ducey orders schools to offer in-person classes; ASU expert urges caution about lifting mask rules

(Video by Katelyn Keenehan/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey on Wednesday issued an executive order requiring most of the state’s K-12 schools to get back to in-person instruction by March 15.

Although Ducey said students need to get back into the classroom, other states are loosening or eliminating some COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates.

Dr. Joshua LaBaer, the executive director of ASU Biodesign Institute, said Wednesday it’s “an odd time” to lift the mask mandates.

“States are hovering at a higher (case rate) level than they were at when people reached a low earlier in the fall,” he told reporters.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced an end to the statewide mask mandate, saying businesses will return to operating at full capacity March 10.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” he said. “Everybody who wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to open should be open.”

Arizona does not have a statewide mask mandate, leaving guidance to county officials, mayors and tribal leaders. For Arizona to fully open, LaBaer said, he would like the state to reach 70% to 80% herd immunity, a level usually achieved through vaccination. Less than 20% of Arizonans have received either COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite concerns from health experts, some Arizona legislators are calling for changes to COVID-19 safety guidelines. On Feb. 16, the House Commerce Committee preliminarily approved House Bill 2770, which would prevent the state, counties or cities from forcing businesses to enforce mask mandates.

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Ducey ordered that all district and charter schools must offer in-person learning in less than two weeks, with exceptions for high-transmission areas in Coconino, Yavapai and Pinal counties. Schools will reopen based on guidelines issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which are based on risk of transmission.

“The science is clear,” Ducey said in a statement. “It’s time all kids have the option to return to school so they can get back on track and we can close the achievement gap.”

The governor noted that “more than half of Arizona’s schools” are offering in-person options now.

The Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest teacher association, said Ducey has for months refused to meet with educators and “left it to school districts to develop their own plans” to reopen.

The statement criticized Ducey for taking credit for that planning “without offering any resources,” and it highlighted the need for additional funding.

“The science also says that community spread is key to keeping our schools safe, yet Governor Ducey has chosen to focus on reopening schools without any kind of measures to mitigate community spread such as a statewide mask mandate,” the statement reads.

LaBaer said he was concerned that although the state’s seven-day average for new cases has decreased since Jan. 1, it is stalled at about 1,000 new cases per day.

“I would be much happier if we could get things well below that 1,000-new cases-a-day mark,” he said.

On Wednesday, March 3, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported 1,284 new cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths.

Nearly 8% of Arizonans have been fully vaccinated, and about 17% have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

In his order to reopen in-person learning, Ducey touted the state’s prioritization of vaccinating teachers, noting “many have already received their second dose.”

LaBaer said the vaccines, which were approved by FDA officials for emergency use, are proving to be effective against new strains spreading across the nation, reducing the risk of severe illness and hospitalization. Distribution of a third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, is expected to begin this month.

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A more transmissible variant of COVID-19 first found in the United Kingdom is spreading in Arizona, LaBaer said, and making up a small percentage of positive cases found in the state.

The new variant, B.1.1.7, represents about 2% of positive COVID-19 cases in Arizona, he said, after health officials confirmed the state’s first three cases of the variant in late January.

“It is definitely growing in the state and we’ll just have to keep tracking that,” he said.

The variant, discovered in mid-December in the United Kingdom, is doubling its case numbers in the U.S. every 10 days, according to a recent study.

Despite the increased rate of transmission, there isn’t enough research to confirm whether the new strain is linked to increased rates of death, according to the CDC.

“Our goal really should be to get everybody vaccinated,” LaBaer said. “Because if we could do that, we can very significantly limit severe outcomes from this illness.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Kevin Pirehpour expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in leadership and ethics. Pirehpour, who has reported for the State Press, is reporting for Cronkite News this spring.

News Reporter, Phoenix

Katelyn Keenehan expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minors in digital audiences and political science. Keenehan, who is an investigative intern at 12 News in Phoenix, is working on the Innovation Team at Cronkite News.