Ban on school mask mandates was unconstitutionally enacted, judge rules

Sandra Cobos, an acceleration specialist at Justine Spitalny School in Phoenix, guides students through a series of vocalization exercises. Cobos helps kids who struggled with online learning to catch up with their studies. (Photo by Mingson Lau/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A Maricopa County Superior Court judge on Monday ruled the Legislature violated the Arizona Constitution by including a ban on school mask mandates in budget legislation, clearing the way for public schools to continue requiring masks to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Judge Katherine Cooper found that the Legislature’s budget-related bills violated budget title requirements, which are intended to ensure the public knows about proposed legislation and can participate in the bill-passing process.

The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of educators and parents, targeted four bills: House Bill 2898, Senate Bill 1824 and SB 1825, which related to health and education. The fourth, SB 1819, focused on budget procedures and reconciliation, which violated the single-subject rule, Cooper decided.

In addition to thwarting the mask ban, the ruling also allows universities and community colleges to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, and it allows the teaching of such controversial subjects related to “race, ethnicity or sex.”

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office has not yet responded to a request for comment.

Many schools had early masking requirements or had implemented mask policies before the 2021-22 school year. Those requirements would have come into question Wednesday, when the bans were set to take effect.

“When the pandemic began, Phoenix Union promised our staff, students, and community that we would prioritize their safety by following the science,” Richard Franco, spokesperson for Phoenix Union High School District, said in an email. “Vaccines are the most effective way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and masks are second.”

The effectiveness of masks was underscored in a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Arizona State University, which found that universal mask wearing in K-12 schools in Maricopa and Pima counties led to a reduced likelihood of a school-related COVID-19 outbreak. The CDC study reinforced its existing guidance urging schools to require masking among students and staff to prevent further outbreaks as COVID-19 cases continue to soar and ICU beds fill up.

The research team looked at COVID-19 mitigation plans from public, non-charter school websites and whether schools required mask wearing. The team also worked with the Arizona Department of Education and with local public health officials to look at outbreak data.

“Our association shows that the schools that don’t have multiple clients are more likely to see school outbreaks,” said Dr. Megan Jehn of the ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change and co-author of the study. “Masking is one component of the CDC guidance, and they have had it set for a long time that they recommend a layered approach in the school setting so masking is just one of those layered strategies.”

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Dr. Theresa Cullen, public health director from the Pima County Health Department, said the Arizona study, along with two other CDC studies released last week, were designed to look at the full impact of masks in schools.

The studies, she said, indicated early mask requirements made a significant difference in regards to the number of outbreaks.

“What’s important to note is that increased incidents of outbreaks were in schools that were not masked, 3.5 times the level that we saw in schools that had an early masking requirement,” Cullen said. “We believe that this once again supports our recommendation that schools mask.”

ASU worked with the CDC after Jehn received questions from parents and school administrators asking what COVID-19 mitigation measures they should put in place in schools.

“We decided that Arizona was a really unique opportunity to take an early look at some of this back-to-school data because we go back so much earlier than many of the schools,” she said, noting that many Arizona schools have been back in session since late July or early August.

“The survey data presented in this report reinforces what we already know to be true – masking is an important and effective way to help control the spread of the virus,” said Franco, with Phoenix Union.

Mesa Public Schools, the largest public school district in Arizona, recommends that staff and students wear masks but doesn’t require them.

Carrie Grantham, who teaches first grade at Sandra Day O’Connor Elementary, said while she doesn’t like to make people do anything they don’t want to, she wishes that mask mandates were in place in schools. Out of the 18 students in her class, only six wear masks in the classroom. She said she typically has one to two students missing class at any given time because of potential COVID-19 exposure.

“Kids are getting COVID this year, and when they miss school, they miss for two weeks, and I didn’t see that last year,” Grantham said. “I’m afraid of all the school they’re missing, so I do wish masks were back, but I’m also nervous about how parents are going to feel. I don’t want parents pulling their kids out of school.”

Sara Edwards Sa-ruh Ed-words (she/her/hers)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Sara Edwards expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree focused on business journalism. Edwards, who graduated from ASU in 2021, has interned with Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Magazine and Crime and Justice News. She is working for the Phoenix news bureau.

News Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Mingson Lau expects to graduate in summer 2022 with a degree in journalism. Lau, who has worked for The State Press, Arizona Horizon and local Arizonan publications, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau and hopes to earn a master’s degree in mass communications in summer 2023.