Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

“It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law.”

As several Arizona school districts return to school amid the pandemic this month, some Republican lawmakers are asking Gov. Doug Ducey to withhold school funding and pursue legal action against them for requiring masks.

On Wednesday, 26 Republican state lawmakers signed onto a letter calling for “rogue” local school districts to be held accountable for not adhering to state law regarding mask-wearing.

Mask and vaccine requirements are currently prohibited in Arizona public schools, under legislation passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature earlier this summer and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey. The law doesn’t go into effect until Sept. 29, but Republican lawmakers argued that the legislature added a retroactivity clause that makes it currently enforceable.

But several school districts have moved forward with requiring masks regardless. Others have chosen to start the school year without mask rules.

The Republican lawmakers said the school districts were engaged in illegal activity and did not have the power to “usurp state law.”

“It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “It must not be allowed to stand. Any local government that willfully and intentionally flaunts state law must be held accountable.”

The debate over whether to heed state law or implement health and safety measures regardless comes as Arizona is seeing another surge in COVID-19 cases. Every high school and unified school district in Maricopa County is currently showing a high level of community spread of the virus.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new recommendations for all students, staff, and visitors in K-12 schools to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status.

On Wednesday, Arizona’s three public universities all announced they would require masks in classrooms, labs and other indoor areas where social distancing wasn’t not possible.

But the Republican lawmakers called mask and vaccine mandates “anti-science.”

“It borders on anarchy and destabilizes the very foundation of our society to have local governments effectively refusing to comply with the law,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. “It must not be allowed to stand. Any local government that willfully and intentionally flaunts state law must be held accountable.”

The lawmakers called on Gov. Ducey to withhold federal funding from any school district currently requiring masks and authorize Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) for students “trapped” within a school district that was requiring masks.

ESAs allow eligible Arizona parents to take funding that would have gone to their child’s public or charter school and use it on private school tuition, textbooks and other services.

Save Our Schools Arizona, a grassroots organization that has worked to stop expansion of the ESA program, called the letter a “flimsy” and “desperate” attempt at using the pandemic to once again expand school vouchers.

“We call upon AZ lawmakers to stop using AZ children as bargaining chips, and to prioritize the health & safety of our students as child hospitalizations rise,” the group said in a tweet Thursday. “There has never been a better time to rise above political opportunism & to come together to support our students.”

CJ Karamargin, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, said Thursday that the office had not reviewed the letter but had been “looking at ideas on this topic.” 

“The governor is anti-mandate, but pro-vaccine and pro-parental decision on masks and other measures,” Karamargin wrote in an email. “Parents should decide what’s best for their kids, and those are the kind of policies he will be supporting.”