Masks, Vaccines, and Curriculum Concerns Are Prompting Confrontations in Arizona School Districts

Scottsdale Unified School District

By Lorraine Longhi

May 21, 2021

Outbursts at a Scottsdale school board meeting earlier this week belied deeper concerns over issues like vaccines and school curriculum.

Sanya Agarwal was attending her first Scottsdale Unified School District board meeting Tuesday night when attendees erupted in anger after being asked to wear masks.

Agarwal, a senior at Desert Mountain High School, was at the meeting to be recognized as a National Merit Scholar. But those plans were put on hold when the governing board recessed the meeting—its last one of the school year—within minutes over the outbursts.

Agarwal told The Copper Courier Tuesday that it was a disappointment. “Many of us seniors were looking forward to having our achievements recognized,” she said.

The meeting marks the latest incident in a fraught school year that has featured clashes between parents and school boards across Arizona over issues like masks, school curriculum, and how to safely operate schools during the pandemic.

At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, parents could be heard calling for Board President Jann-Michael Greenburg to take off his mask. Greenburg subsequently advised parents of the district’s policy requiring masks in all district buildings.

“Respectfully, I know that there are many differing views on this but that is the rule of this district, that is the rule of this building,” he said. “If you do not put your mask on, we cannot proceed with this meeting and you will be asked to leave by security.”

Several members of the crowd erupted into chants of “No masks,” prompting the board to ultimately recess the meeting. 

A statement from the Arizona School Boards Association acknowledged the tense relationship that has emerged this year between parents and school boards, denouncing “any attempt to intimidate or threaten school board members” inside or outside public meetings.

“School board members are unpaid elected officials who live in the same community as the residents they serve,” the statement read. “Too often this year they have been treated as faceless bureaucrats who are optimal targets to release rage and frustration over the circumstances of the pandemic.”

The meeting has been rescheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, May 24, but will now be held virtually to avoid further threats of disruption that were identified by the Scottsdale Police Department.

Scottsdale parent Caroline Novak called the meeting disappointing, but said the district was aware there would be a large parent turnout and were overwhelmed by the number of people in attendance. 

“This should all be about what’s best for our kids and at this point, it is not,” Novak said.

Students Meant To Be Honored Before End of Year 

Scottsdale Superintendent Scott Menzel said the district’s last meeting of the year is typically well-attended, a “time-honored SUSD tradition” to recognize the accomplishments of some of the district’s outstanding students, particularly its seniors, who will graduate next week.  

Scottsdale, which serves approximately 22,000 students, will hold its last day of classes next Thursday, May 27.

“SUSD students have achieved great things this school year, despite limitations placed on them through no fault of their own due to the pandemic, and they should know that we recognize their tremendous effort,” Menzel wrote in a statement following the meeting.

During the meeting, Menzel said that some people who were set to be recognized had left. In a video of the meeting, a group of what appears to be several students wearing masks can be seen leaving the governing board room as attendees continue to push back against the district’s mask policy.

Agarwal said several individuals were allowed to walk into the meeting without masks, but were finally asked to wear them after roughly half an hour, prompting outbursts. Moving forward, she suggested the district could have better organization and enforcement about the expectation to wear masks in the boardroom.

Menzel expressed disappointment at the meeting Tuesday, saying those refusing to comply with school district expectations for masks overshadowed a night meant to celebrate student success.

“We’ve had people who have had to leave tonight who were on the agenda to be recognized because they felt uncomfortable because of that choice,” he said.

Following Menzel’s acknowledgment of those individuals at the meeting, some in the crowd began booing him.

Novak, the Scottsdale mom, said it was unfortunate that the meeting had been distilled down to a disagreement over masks, as parents had come to the meeting with other concerns.

What Brought People To Tuesday’s Meeting?

A flyer posted to social media that was circulated among parents ahead of the meeting outlined a list of demands from parents, including that masks and vaccines be optional and that the district “stop the indoctrination of our children.”

But Greenburg said the claims on the flyer were inaccurate.

Vaccines are optional in the district and have never been mandatory, and masks are required until the end of the school year next week. Mask-wearing will become optional at the start of the fall school year, barring any guidance from health authorities recommending masks, he said.

Novak told The Copper Courier that there are parents in the district who don’t support masks and won’t send their kids back to the district in the fall if there is still a mask requirement. On Friday, she said she was pleased to hear that masks will be optional in the fall.

“This makes so many of us thrilled and feeling more comfortable and optimistic that the district will do what’s right for our kids,” she said. “This is a huge step forward if the district holds to their promise.”

Menzel said the district has also provided information to families about where they can get vaccinated, and has even encouraged people to get the vaccine, particularly now that the Pfizer vaccine is available to children 12 and older in Arizona. The district wants to do its part to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and ensure that schools remain healthy and safe learning environments for students and staff, he said.

“There’s a big difference between mandating it and providing information and encouraging people to do it,” Menzel told The Copper Courier.

Agarwal said she was surprised at the outbursts and fervent opposition to masks. Masks are mandatory at Desert Mountain, and she said the school has done a great job of following COVID-19 guidelines. She assumed the same was true for the entire community.

“It’s not a big deal in our school, everyone wears the masks and no one even really cares about it,” she said. “There’s seven days left in our school year.”

Gov. Doug Ducey rolled back mask mandates for Arizona schools last month, but individual school districts retained the right to continue enforcing their own mask mandates. Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega also rescinded the city’s mask mandate last week, following new guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that said fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask.

The rules seemed to cause confusion among some members of the audience Tuesday night. One individual could be heard referencing Mayor Ortega’s order, questioning why attendees had to wear masks if they were in a Scottsdale facility and it was after school hours. “This is America, land of what’s supposed to be the free,” they said.

But Greenburg said the district’s mask requirement is clearly stated on the meeting agenda items posted online, and that it was disingenuous of audience members to question why masks would be required.

On Friday, Ortega signed onto a statement with Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego supporting the district and its right to conduct its business in an “orderly, respectful environment in which all voices are acknowledged.”

At a press conference Friday, Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther said tensions related to mask-wearing have boiled over in several different venues over the last year, including at restaurants, bars, or public parks.

“That puts your police departments in a very precarious position,” he said. “I ask myself and my staff, what’s the next thing? What’s the next flashpoint for us related to masks or misinformation that we’re going to wind up having to deal with?”

According to Greenburg, some individuals at Tuesday’s meeting also made intentional callouts to agitate the crowd and “add fuel to the fire.” 

Greenburg said one individual referenced what happened in the Vail Unified School District, where the school board was forced to cancel its meeting and call police after parents pushed their way into the governing board room refusing to wear masks, according to reporting from local ABC affiliate KGUN 9.

Greenburg acknowledged that there are some in the district who don’t believe that COVID-19 is dangerous and who do not support mask-wearing, but Scottsdale’s school board meetings have been open to public comment throughout the pandemic, and Greenburg said some of those individuals have spoken at meetings in the past without incident.

Greenburg, who ran for the school board in 2018 on the heels of several district scandals that led to the ouster of its former superintendent, is no stranger to controversial school board meetings. He was a vocal critic of board members at the time, saying at one meeting that their collective leadership offered “no benefit to the district.”

Despite those meetings turning heated, attendees always adhered to the rules set forth at board meetings, he said. “That’s the game. You follow the rules and you get to speak.”

But the incident in Scottsdale is also reflective of conversations that are taking place in districts across Arizona—and even at the state legislature—about what students are learning in the classroom.

Conversations About Curriculum Happening Across the State

Novak, a former teacher in the district, is just one Arizona parent who has questions about what she says is a lack of transparency around new curriculum being implemented in the district.

Her concerns are part of a growing trend among some conservative Republicans across the country.

James T. Harris, a conservative radio talk show host in Phoenix, posted pictures to Facebook Tuesday with parents outside the Scottsdale school board meeting. Harris’ Facebook page has 528,000 followers and includes a pinned post directing parents on how to “stop critical race theory in your school.”

Critical race theory is an academic framework that seeks to explain how racism in the United States is embedded and upheld by legal systems and policies. A slate of bills looking to outlaw teaching critical race theory in schools have already passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, according to Education Week

Critics of the legislation have said they could serve as a blanket deterrent for discussing any issues related to race or diversity in the classroom, while some parents and lawmakers opposed to critical race theory have said that it could unfairly shame or place blame on white students.

Earlier this month, the Arizona legislature advanced a bill that would fine teachers up to $5,000 for discussing “controversial issues” in the classroom. 

Proponents of the bill have said that there have been increased instances of teachers taking political advocacy into the classroom and presenting biased viewpoints as fact, while educators and opponents of the bill have said the language is ambiguous, vague, and potentially unconstitutional.

In an interview aired Wednesday, Harris, the radio host, spoke with Amy Carney, who identified herself as a Scottsdale parent concerned about decisions being made in the district behind parents’ backs. When questioned by Harris about critical race theory, Carney did not provide any specific examples of what she had seen related to critical race theory being taught in Scottsdale.

Novak said a lack of transparency is a chief concern for many parents in the district. The board did not want to add an agenda item to discuss new curriculum in the district for Tuesday’s meeting, she said.

Last month, the district approved several pieces of curriculum for the 2021-2022 school year. Among them was Savvas, an English Language Arts curriculum for 9th-12th graders in the district.

The Savvas curriculum is not critical race theory, but does include culturally responsive learning, which is “racially and ethnically diverse” in terms of authorship and visual representation, according to Menzel.

“We serve a diverse student population, and quite frankly, providing culturally relevant teaching and learning experiences for our students from all different backgrounds is really important,” he said. “We will continue to do that. We’re not shying away from culturally relevant and appropriate practices, but we’re not teaching critical race theory as a part of our curriculum.”

Following Tuesday’s meeting, Novak said the board was not allowing for healthy discussion and involvement from parents about their students’ well-being.

“It just goes to show board members aren’t listening,” Novak said. “There is a lot of discord within our district. Parents feel strongly and need to be heard. Parent involvement should be encouraged.”

When Scottsdale recessed its meeting Tuesday, Greenburg said there were 13 speakers scheduled to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. By the end of the meeting, he said approximately 10 more individuals had submitted cards requesting to speak.

According to Greenburg, half of the individuals scheduled to speak wanted to discuss an agenda item concerning baseball and softball field lighting at one of the district’s high schools. The remaining comments concerned curriculum and critical race theory, mask wearing, and vaccines.

A similar scene unfolded last week in the Peoria Unified School District, where a dozen speakers spoke in opposition to masks, critical race theory and mandatory vaccines. 

Tensions were also running high.

Peoria Education Association president Trina Berg spoke at the meeting about the importance of teaching a balanced view of history and being inclusive of diverse perspectives and backgrounds in the classroom. After speaking, Berg was confronted by an audience member who can be heard saying “You work for me” and “I’m your boss,” while some members of the audience laugh, according to video posted of the meeting.

For Menzel, equity is about living up to the ideals outlined in this country’s founding documents: equal treatment under the law, and liberty and justice for all.

Throughout history, the United States has not always lived up to those ideals, he said, and to teach a version of US history that ignores the realities of slavery, the history of Indigenous people in this country, or the realities of the civil rights movement, would be a disservice.

“Those are all realities that happened in this country,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not a great country. What it means is that we’ve fallen short of our ideals and we should be working every day, on behalf of every student, regardless of the color of their skin, regardless of their socioeconomic status or their gender…we should be working tirelessly to ensure that they have the opportunity to achieve their full potential. That’s our job.”

“That’s why diversity is so important. We can’t pretend that those differences…that they don’t exist. They do. How do we ensure that we’re meeting the needs of all of our students regardless of our backgrounds? That’s our work.”

Masks, Vaccines, and Curriculum Concerns Are Prompting Confrontations in Arizona School Districts
Lorraine Longhi

Finding Common Ground

Greenburg said some individuals at Scottsdale’s meeting appeared to be part of a traveling circuit of individuals who have attended board meetings in other school districts in recent weeks. 

During the press conference Friday, Chief Walther said individuals were putting out calls to get anywhere from 300-1,000 people to attend the next Scottsdale board meeting, calling the individuals inciting disturbances on social media a “vocal minority.”

“People got very upset because of misinformation. We’re living in the era of misinformation,” he said. “I think probably one of the best strategies is to make sure that we get out the real information in advance. In the absence of information, it just gets made up.”

Harris, the radio host, also posted pictures to social media last week outside of the Peoria meeting. Harris said on his show Wednesday that’s where he had met Carney, the Scottsdale mom, when she asked him to come “help out” in Scottsdale. In a post to a public Facebook group, Carney confirmed that she had attended the meeting in Peoria.

While Carney acknowledged on Harris’ show that parents were upset and spoke their mind at Tuesday night’s meeting in Scottsdale, she said she did not feel the meeting was out of control or that parents were acting belligerent.

Carney declined a request for comment from The Copper Courier on Thursday.

Menzel says that conversations around the issue of masks and vaccines have been politically charged, and that people on both sides of the political aisle have spun words, phrases and ideas to benefit a specific political agenda. The pandemic, coupled with the 2020 election, has made people frustrated and tired.

“As a school district, I think one of our opportunities here is to teach our students and our young people how to have civil conversation around differences of opinion and ideas. How do we separate fact from fiction? How do we vet the data that we’re finding on the internet?” Menzel said. “We have an opportunity as public educators to change the narrative and to create a conversation that can help move us forward.”

Menzel believes there is common ground to be found, particularly amid the discussions around critical race theory. At the meeting, several individuals had signs that read “Stop racism. Stop hate. Stop critical race theory.”

“Let’s focus on the (first) two words. Stop racism,” he said. “We should be able to find common ground on that very topic. None of us want racism to be perpetuated in our schools. So let’s work on the common ground areas.”

At Desert Mountain, Agarwal said she hasn’t been taught anything related to critical race theory or even the Black Lives Matter movement in the classroom, but that controversial issues like abortion or other current events are sometimes broached, depending on the class.

Those lessons are presented in a straightforward manner, she said, and she’s never felt pressure from teachers to think a certain way. Students may sometimes disagree during discussions, but teachers don’t facilitate those arguments or present a strong bias either way, she said.

Ultimately, Agarwal said the conversations are valuable to her and often bring different perspectives to the table.

“It also helps us understand the world we live in,” she said. “It’s very valuable to understand that and to have educated opinions in today’s society.”

Meeting to Resume Next Week

With only a handful of police officers and district security officers on hand to keep the crowd calm and avoid confrontation Tuesday, Greenburg said the board ultimately decided to recess the meeting.

“I’m not willing to put board members and other employees, students’ lives at risk over a mask,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

But Menzel said Friday that holding an in-person meeting wasn’t advisable given the increased threats of disruption that Chief Walther outlined in a memo to the district.

No arrests were made at Tuesday’s meeting, but Walther said Friday that the department’s intelligence department had identified several calls for disruption at the board’s rescheduled meeting. The department’s priority was to ensure that board members, parents, district staff, community members and police were kept safe, he said.

“There is a lot of chatter out there about disrupting the meeting and disrupting the orderly conduct of the meeting with board members,” he said at Friday’s press conference. “When we start to look at that call to arms and that call to disruption for a governing board meeting…I presented that information to Dr. Menzel so he can make an informed decision on which course to take moving forward.”

The 23 individuals that submitted comment cards at Tuesday’s meeting will be able to deliver their comments virtually at next Monday’s meeting, according to Menzel.

“The district and the governing board want to hear from our parents and our community,” he said Friday. “Diversity of thought and perspective in a public format that allows questions and concerns to be raised has been a longstanding practice of the governing board at their regular monthly meetings.”

The meeting will also recognize the students, teachers, school volunteers and longtime district employees who were meant to be honored on Tuesday.

Agarwal, the Desert Mountain senior, hoped board meetings could be conducted in a more organized, respectful fashion moving forward, but as a student in the district, said she still sees value in the purpose of the public meetings.

“I think it’s great that they have a forum for public discussion where different people can voice their opinions and voice what changes they want,” she said.


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