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

“Returning to school in-person safely is an oxymoron. You can’t do that if you’ve taken away our safety precautions.”

As school resumed in the Chandler Unified School District on Wednesday, students are no longer required to mask up or quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.

The district made a change to its quarantining policy after Gov. Doug Ducey’s office told two Arizona school districts that it was unlawful to require unvaccinated students to quarantine after exposure to the virus.

Chandler subsequently changed its policy, just two days before the district reopened for classes. After the Arizona legislature blocked school districts from implementing mask mandates or COVID-19 testing, the district is also unable to require that students wear masks.

Katie Nash, a biology teacher at Chandler High School and president of the Chandler Education Association, expressed anger at the governor’s intervention just days before the start of classes. 

Nash called attention to the irony of the governor’s interference when compared to the start of the pandemic, when she said the governor placed decisions about keeping students safe in the hands of districts, pitting them against one another.

“This year he decides he’s just going to go ahead and take every form of mitigation we possibly could have and take it away from us,” Nash said. “Returning to school in-person safely is an oxymoron. You can’t do that if you’ve taken away our safety precautions.”

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Guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, and even the Arizona Department of Health Services head Dr. Cara Christ, maintains that unvaccinated students should wear masks at school to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Students in Chandler who are exposed to COVID-19 will not be required to quarantine as long as they do not display symptoms, regardless of their vaccination status. In the event that district data indicates there is a high level of spread of COVID-19 in schools, the district may reinstitute quarantining, according to the district’s mitigation strategies.

As of Thursday, both of the county health metrics used to assess community spread of the virus in the district were in the red, suggesting a high level of community spread of COVID-19.

Jo Burnett, a Chandler parent whose daughter is a junior at Perry High School, told The Copper Courier that her daughter is vaccinated and feels confident that she’ll be protected at school.

But while Burnett said she’s grateful that her daughter is old enough to get a vaccine, she expressed concern for parents of children in elementary and middle school who aren’t able to be vaccinated, especially as the new Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread across the state. 

“If my daughter was under 12 and wasn’t vaccinated, then I’d be very concerned,” she said.

The Pfizer vaccine is the only vaccine available to minors in the US, and is currently only approved for those 12 and older. As of Wednesday, only 51% of the state’s population had been vaccinated, according to numbers from ADHS.

Changes in Chandler Come After Governor’s Office Weighs In

Chandler Unified is the second largest district in the state and served approximately 44,000 students during the 2020-2021 school year.

In a health and safety letter sent to Chandler parents on Monday, the district said it revised the quarantine protocols in light of the recent letter from Ducey’s office. 

In letters sent to the Peoria Unified School District and the Catalina Foothills School District last week, Ducey’s office said district policies requiring unvaccinated students to quarantine after exposure would single out those students and keep them from in-person instruction.

“Children of parents who choose not to have their children get the COVID-19 vaccine should not be discriminated against for such decisions,” Kaitlin Harrier, an education policy advisor for the Governor’s Office, wrote to the school districts.

A spokesperson for the Governor’s Office said last week that the language in the legislation passed earlier this year was specific to schools and was “not the same as general public health guidelines.”

“It takes into account that school is the safest place for kids, whether they are vaccinated or not, and that they have a right to receive in-person education,” spokesperson CJ Karamargin wrote.

The Arizona Department of Health Services did not respond to a request for comment last week about any changes to their health recommendations for schools.

In a blog post Wednesday, Dr. Christ addressed the questions about the impact of state laws on mitigation efforts at schools, saying that ADHS guidance remains unchanged, but that quarantines are used “sparingly.”

“Quarantine remains a public health option when there are COVID-19 cases in schools,” she wrote. “However, quarantine is used sparingly in consultation with the local public health department, and the goal of public health and schools remains to keep kids in the classroom as much as possible.”

Public Schools A ‘Leverage Point’

Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said Thursday that public school districts were being singled out, just days before school starts for some districts.

“I am tired of Arizona’s public schools being a leverage point for the governor’s political conversation on COVID-19 that growingly has nothing to do with science or public health,” Hoffman said in a statement.

The Arizona School Boards Association, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization that provides services and support for school boards, echoed similar sentiments in a statement issued last week.

“Arizona’s school districts are tired of being the battleground for a political argument over response to COVID that has nothing to do with science or public health,” the organization said in its statement. “The consequences of the governor’s decisions for the health of Arizona’s students will be his to bear.”

The question of whether to quarantine students is only the latest flashpoint in a year when schools have contended with escalating hostilities and disagreements over mask-wearing, vaccines, and school curriculum.

Burnett, the Chandler parent, said schools were “constantly reacting” last year, causing frustration and confusion among school communities.

“From a parent standpoint, it’s been a little frustrating. I feel like we’ve not necessarily had our ducks in a row,” she said. “I just try to extend grace. Obviously none of us have actually lived through a pandemic, let alone had our teenage kids in school during a pandemic.”

In the wake of the district’s decision to change its guidance on quarantining students, Nash said that she has heard from parents and teachers who are worried about the safety of in-person instruction and enrolling their children in the district’s online academy.

Still, she said the first day of school was a mixed bag of anxiety and hopefulness as teachers were able to see their students in person, regardless of if they were masked or unmasked.

“You’re just so excited to do your job, what you have been trained to do…hoping that we can kind of be somewhat normal this year,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect the current county health metrics in the district.