By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror
PHOENIX — The future of classroom COVID-19 mitigation measures now lies in Gov. Doug Ducey’s hands: A bill the state Senate approved Monday would force schools to seek parental consent if they want to keep their students masked up.
If the governor signs House Bill 2616 into law, school districts and charter schools would be barred from enacting mask mandates to limit the spread of COVID-19 or other illnesses. Instead, they could only require students to wear masks if their parents have given their approval first. Making it an opt-in policy eliminates the ability of schools to enact mask mandates, which were widespread in schools during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, a similar prohibition on masking in public schools was passed but was ultimately voided by the Arizona Supreme Court after it ruled that folding unrelated legislation into budget bills was unconstitutional. Since that setback, Republican lawmakers have turned to the traditional legislative process to strike down mask mandates they see as violating personal freedom and ineffective, despite evidence to the contrary.
Critics say that limiting how schools can respond to the ongoing pandemic — or future health crises — is unwise because masking works best when compliance rates are high. Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, noted that masks work best when preventing particles from exiting, but are less effective at filtering incoming air.
“HB2616 says schools can’t require kids to wear a mask ‘without the express consent of the parent’…nullifying the intervention because classroom masking only works when it’s universal,” tweeted Will Humble, the executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.
For some, the measure doesn’t go far enough. Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita was dissatisfied with its lack of penalties for schools that choose to ignore the directive. Without codified punishment, she said, there wouldn’t be adequate incentive to obey.
“With no penalty, this honestly is just a nothingburger. The public is going to be left with the impression that we’ve provided them a protection, and we haven’t,” she said.
Ugenti-Rita said lawmakers should take advantage of the Republican majority in both chambers and the Republican governor by taking harsher preventive measures.
The Scottsdale Republican also objected to what she sees as uneven application across the state. Students in schools on Native American reservations — which are sovereign entities — are unfairly exempt, she said. Only federal and tribal laws apply on federal reservations, unless Congress decides otherwise.
“I don’t like leaving pockets of kids out. I think we should treat all kids the same. I think all kids in the state of Arizona should have the same protections,” she said.
Still, Ugenti-Rita voted for HB2616.
Proponents of the bill have lambasted schools for requiring masks, as the practice has become an increasingly political issue. In 2021, Ducey limited access to school COVID relief money to only those school districts that didn’t have mask mandates, though the federal government has since moved to take back the money.
Throughout the current school year, schools across the state have continued to relax their masking requirements in light of currently reduced COVID-19 rates.
HB2616 passed the Senate on a 16-12 party-line vote, winning the support of every Republican senator. It travels next to Ducey’s desk, where he has five days to decide whether to sign or veto it.
Gloria Gomez, a senior at the University of Arizona, is the 2022 UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow working with editors from the Arizona Mirror. Gomez has interned at the Arizona Daily Star and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She is a dual major in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The UA School of Journalism started the fellowship in 1977 to honor Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic reporter killed in a 1976 car bombing.