Legislators take aim at mask mandates in schools

By Gloria Gomez/UA Don Bolles Fellow/AZ Mirror

PHOENIX — Schools could have their hands tied in the future by a legislative proposal hoping to prohibit masking requirements without a parent’s OK. 

An attempt last year to ban mask mandates in public schools was killed by the Arizona Supreme Court, which ruled that it was unconstitutional to package such legislation in budget bills. The new effort, House Bill 2616, prohibits the state, any government entity, school district or charter school from requiring minors to wear face coverings without the express consent from their parents. 

Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association, told the Arizona Mirror that erecting legislative barriers to public health policy decisions is unwise, especially because the future of COVID-19 remains unclear. Mask mandates are an important tool for schools to reduce the rate at which students fall behind due to absences and whittling away at their future implementation could be detrimental to students down the road, he said. 

“(This is) the kind of bill you would want to pass if you didn’t care whether kids missed school or not,” Humble said. 

The bill does allow for students to be directed to wear masks if their parents approve of the requirement, but it doesn’t specify how that approval would be obtained. Making it an opt-in process could lead to a patchwork of mask users. That’s a problem, because masks are at their most efficient when compliance rates are high, Humble said, unless students wear N-95 masks tightly, which is unlikely. 

“The masks are a great tool for stopping particles from leaving your mouth, but they’re not a great filter of air coming in. …The idea is everyone wears a mask, which keeps the particles out of the air to begin with and then the kids and the teachers don’t get infected,” he said. 

During a Senate Government Committee on Monday, panel members pointed to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recent relaxing of masking recommendations as justification for why masks shouldn’t be forced on children. COVID-19 caseloads in Arizona  continue to decline after the omicron variant’s peak in mid-January. The CDC currently designates Maricopa County at medium community risk level, and high risk level carries with it a mask recommendation in indoor spaces. 

Committee Chairwoman Kelly Townsend strongly supported the measure. The Apache Junction Republican chastised schools with mask mandates still in place, saying they were in open violation of CDC guidelines. 

“This bill generated a lot of interest, especially down in Tucson where we have some jurisdictions that are not following CDC recommendations and are still including the mask mandate,” she said. 

Tucson Unified School district has announced it will adjust masking regulations according to CDC guidelines, and will make masks optional if community transmission rates remain medium to low starting later this month. As many as 10 school districts across the state have shifted their mask requirements to recommendations and nine districts are keeping their mandates in place. 

Parental rights are also in play, according to Townsend, who said that donning a mask amounts to a medical intervention and state law protects a parent’s right to make medical decisions for their children. 

“It’s as if the schools feel as though they have parental authority over the child, as if the child is their child and not the parent’s child,” she said. 

The measure passed 4-3, with the committee’s Republican members in support and the Democrats in opposition.  The bill travels next to the full Senate for debate. 

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.

Photo by Jim Small / Arizona Mirror

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