Law Blocking Mask Requirements in K-12 Schools Unconstitutional, Arizona Supreme Court Rules

AP Photo/Matt York

By Lorraine Longhi

November 5, 2021

“Arizona’s classrooms are now safer places for students and educators.”

A series of laws, including one that would have blocked mask requirements in K-12 schools, were upheld as unconstitutional by the Arizona Supreme Court earlier this week.

The measures were introduced by Republican lawmakers in the state budget that was signed by Gov. Doug Ducey in June, and were later challenged by a coalition of school groups and the Arizona School Boards Association.

In addition to the ban on mask requirements, legislation in the budget would have blocked the state’s three public universities from requiring that students be vaccinated and prohibited critical race theory, an academic framework that has turned into a flashpoint for conservatives, from being taught in schools.

Critical race theory seeks to explain how racism in the United States is embedded and upheld by legal systems and policies. Many Arizona school districts have acknowledged that critical race theory is not being taught in their schools, but as teachers and parents have grappled with how to discuss issues like race, diversity, and equity this year, the state’s Republican lawmakers have sought to implement fines for teachers who discuss “controversial Issues” in the classroom.

RELATED: 645,000 AZ Children Are Eligible for the Pfizer Vaccine. Here’s What Parents Need to Know.

In September, Maricopa County Judge Katherine Cooper ruled that by trying to pass legislation related to masks, vaccines, and school curriculum in the state budget, lawmakers violated Arizona’s constitution.

“…[T]heir function was to enact laws to effectuate the budget,” Cooper wrote at the time. “It was not to enact laws prohibiting mask mandates, regulating school curriculum, or authorizing special interest projects unrelated to the budget or budget reconciliation.”

The laws were scheduled to take effect Sept. 29, but in violating the state constitution, Cooper called the laws void and unenforceable.

The Arizona Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously upheld Cooper’s judgment.

A spokesperson for Ducey told the Associated Press that the Governor’s Office was extremely disappointed in the ruling. 

Schools Moving Forward

Several school districts who had moved forward with enacting mask requirements this year can continue to require them, as can cities and towns, who were also barred from implementing mask requirements.

The Phoenix Unified High School District, the largest high school district in the state, was the first district to announce ahead of the fall semester that it would continue enforcing its mask mandate, despite the state law prohibiting them.

On Tuesday, the district said it was grateful for the ruling from the Supreme Court.

The Pfizer vaccine was not approved for children 12 and older until May, and the vaccine only became available to children ages 5-11 this week. Masking has continued to be a safe and effective measure to stop the spread of COVID-19, and numerous health officials have said that unvaccinated students should wear masks at school to stop the spread of the virus.

“Arizona’s classrooms are now safer places for students and educators,” the district said in a statement. “School systems with a mask requirement are 3.5 times less likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak. The safety of all staff, students, and families must be the top priority of local and state leaders.”

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