Arizona’s ban on mask mandates in schools criticized by health experts

Arizona lawmakers approved legislation this year that bans public schools and universities from enforcing mask mandates and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students. Health experts have raised concerns that this ban could endanger public health. (File photo by Megan Marples/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Health experts are concerned that Arizona’s recently approved budget, which bans public schools and universities from enforcing mask mandates and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students, is endangering public health across the state.

In a virtual panel assembled by the Committee to Protect Health Care, a national advocacy organization that aims to “fight for quality, affordable health care that protects patients over profits,” experts weighed in on how the legislation, as well as Gov. Doug Ducey’s June 15 executive order banning masks at schools, could prolong the pandemic in Arizona.

“Students are being linked to community outbreaks, including in Arizona, and they accounted for 72% of all school-related cases in Maricopa (County) at one point in the past spring,” said Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona. “Banning schools from adopting a simple, cost-effective and scientifically proven safety measure like mask wearing while we are still in the midst of a pandemic makes absolutely no scientific or public health sense.”

Daily COVID-19 cases in Arizona have declined since March, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, with only several hundred new cases per day now compared with the thousands of daily new cases earlier this year. However, in recent weeks, that number has ticked up slightly.

The state’s low vaccination rate also was a major concern for the experts on the panel.

“Only 23.5% of Arizona youth, aged between 12 and 17, have been vaccinated,” said Dr. Ricardo Correa, program director for endocrinology at the University of Arizona. “Policymakers and politicians must do better for Arizona and for children in our state, who deserve elected leaders who will use science and other resources to keep them safe during a pandemic.”

The health department says 49.9% of Arizona’s eligible population has received a COVID-19 vaccination since shots became available in January. The state has reported more than 898,000 COVID-19 cases and 18,000 deaths since January 2020.

Ducey’s executive order stated that students could not “be mandated to take the COVID-19 vaccine or submit COVID-19 vaccination documents.” Under the order, students also cannot be required to be tested or wear masks to participate in learning.

“Public education is a public right, and taxpayers are paying for it,” Ducey said on his website. “We need to make our public universities available for students to return to learning.”

Arizona State University is working out how to comply with the new policy while keeping students safe.

“ASU will comply with the Governor’s Executive Order/legislation regarding COVID-19 protocols,” Katie Paquet, vice president of media relations and strategic communications for ASU, said in an email. “We continue to encourage students to get vaccinated and expect people to follow CDC guidelines.”

The Tucson Unified School District, the largest K-12 school district in southern Arizona, also is in the process of “adjusting to be in compliance with the new state mask requirements,” according to an email from Karla Escamilla, the district’s senior coordinator for media and communications.

Advocates with the Committee to Protect Health Care shared similar concerns about the language in the state budget.

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“Another alarming fact is that this decision from the Legislature comes as Arizona has seen a 16% jump in COVID cases in the past two weeks, as of this past Tuesday,” Rob Davidson, executive director of the committee, said in an email. “Arizona has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, which is why the implementation of masks in both schools and colleges is absolutely necessary at this time, but the Legislature refuses to see their importance.”

The organization plans to hold lawmakers in Arizona and across the country accountable for COVID-19 related bills, and elevate the voices of health experts and scientists.

“With so much misinformation out there, it’s important for Americans, especially during this public health crisis, to get the truth from those who have been on the front lines of this pandemic from the start, and whose top priority is having the patient’s best interest in mind,” Davidson said.

“We are also using our health care professionals in the state to build a relationship with lawmakers to shape policies that include science and the truth.”

Section 12, title 15, chapter 3 of the Arizona budget states: Notwithstanding any other law or order, a county, city, town, school district governing board or charter school governing body may not require the use of face coverings by students or staff during school hours and on school property; and

A school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.

Rithwik Kalale rith-wick kuh-lah-lay (he/him)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Rithwik Kalale expects to graduate in August 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Kalale has reported in audio and digital formats for Real Vision, KJZZ, TARO Magazine and Arizona PBS.