two children walking off a school bus
(AP Photo/Matt York, File)

“If we aren’t going to allow our top scientists to guide us out of this problem, who are we going to follow? Politicians? Because they don’t have the right answers.”

Just one week after Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey reaffirmed that masks cannot be required in public schools, at least seven Arizona school districts are moving forward with doing so regardless.

Last week, Phoenix Union High School District, the largest high school district in the state, announced that it would continue enforcing a mask mandate, despite state law currently prohibiting them.

As of Wednesday, at least six more districts had announced they would also enforce masks: the Tucson Unified School District, as well as the Creighton, Phoenix, Osborn, Roosevelt, and Washington elementary school districts.

The districts’ decisions come on the heels of new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that all students, staff, and visitors in K-12 schools wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status.

“We’ve seen individual classes, whole campuses, whole districts … close within a week of opening schools because of no masks,” Washington Elementary governing board member Nikkie Whaley said. “How do we give people in-person education and try to keep them as safe as possible?”

School Boards Pushing Back

In a statement last Friday, Phoenix Union pointed to the recent CDC guidance and noted that all 32 zip codes in the district had a high or substantial level of community spread of COVID-19.

“PXU has a good faith belief that following guidance from the CDC and other health agencies regarding mitigation strategies is imperative,” the district said in the statement. “We serve nearly 30,000 beautiful young men and women and over 4,000 employees and must take every precaution necessary to protect the lives of those entrusted to us.”

The state reported 2,289 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, after reporting more than 2,000 cases for two consecutive days over the weekend. Nearly every school district in the county was showing a high level of community transmission, according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

As of July 29, 34 children in Arizona have died from COVID-19 related deaths since the start of the pandemic, the second-highest number in the country behind Texas, according to data from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But mask mandates are currently prohibited in Arizona public schools, along with COVID-19 vaccine requirements for students, under legislation passed by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature earlier this summer and signed by Ducey.

Phoenix Union was among the last districts to resume in-person classes after schools turned to online learning during the 2020-2021 school year, only doing so after Ducey ordered schools to return.

On Friday, CJ Karamargin, a spokesperson for the Governor’s Office, said the decision by Phoenix Union was unenforceable and not allowed under Arizona law.

RELATED: Banner Health, Arizona’s Largest Hospital Network, Requiring Vaccines for Employees By Nov. 1

“School administrators should be doing everything they can to encourage eligible students and staff to get vaccinated, not break state law,” Karamargin wrote. “Arizona is not going to mandate masks in any learning environment.”

A high school biology teacher filed a lawsuit against Phoenix Union, alleging that local officials did not have the legal authority to require masks, according to The Arizona Republic. ​

But more districts continued to follow.

On Wednesday morning, the Tucson Unified School District governing board voted unanimously to require masks for all students, teachers, and staff in the district.

“This variant is very different in how it affects our young people. Before we could say, ‘Well, maybe the impact isn’t as great,’” board member Adelita Grijalva said in a discussion ahead of the vote. “That’s not the case anymore.”

By Wednesday afternoon, both the Creighton and Washington elementary school districts had announced they would also be requiring masks.

“I also am a long COVID survivor, and this is something I would wish on no one, to live with this,” Washington Elementary governing board member Jenni Abbott-Bayardi said. “We are entrusted with caring for kids who cannot be vaccinated.”

The Pfizer vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine available to minors in the US, and is currently only approved for those 12 and older. As of Wednesday, roughly 53% of the state’s population had received at least one shot, according to numbers from ADHS.

Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said Wednesday that it was “unconscionable” that schools had been put in this position by Ducey and the Republican-led Legislature.

“Until we are fully on the other side of this pandemic, we must take every necessary precaution to protect student health and safety,” Hoffman wrote. “We have serious work ahead of us to help students recover from the last two disrupted school years, and we don’t have time for political games.” 

Cases Spread in Chandler Schools Amid Changing Guidance

Last month, the Governor’s Office also told two Arizona school districts that it was unlawful to require unvaccinated students to quarantine after exposure to the virus, calling it discrimination.

As a result, the Chandler Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the state, changed its quarantine policy so that students exposed to COVID-19 were no longer required to stay home if they didn’t display symptoms.

On Tuesday, the Chandler district had reported more than 140 cases of COVID-19 since the school year began two weeks ago, with 103 active cases on campuses. More than 30 of those confirmed cases were at Hamilton High School, the largest high school in the state.

Chandler parent Melinda Johnson, whose son is immunosuppressed and attends a high school in the district, said she felt safe about her son’s experience attending classes in-person when mask mandates were in place and enforced.

With the state blocking schools from implementing certain public health measures, despite the new guidance from the CDC, Johnson said she felt frustrated and hopeless.

“The CDC is comprised of scientists, our best scientists,” she told The Copper Courier last week. “Continuously, they come up with a roadmap to help us out of the problem that we’re in. Continuously, the public and politicians ignore that.”

“If we aren’t going to allow our top scientists to guide us out of this problem, who are we going to follow? Politicians? Because they don’t have the right answers.”

Got a tip out of Arizona schools? Reach the reporter at lorraine@couriernewsroom.com or 480-243-4086.