Photo by Peoria Unified School District via AZEdNews
Public health experts said Arizona’s new prohibition on face masks mandates in schools is a political move not supported by science that endangers children, teens and school staff.
A new law that was added to the annual budget at the behest of anti-mask Republican legislators prohibits a school district or charter school from requiring the use of face coverings by students or staff during school hours and on school property. The law also bars schools from requiring a student or teacher receive a COVID-19 vaccine or wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction, effective July 1.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that schools prioritize two prevention strategies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19: the correct and consistent use of masks and physical distancing.
Dr. Cadey Harrel, a family physician in Tucson and the Arizona leader for the Committee to Protect Health Care, said at a press conference Wednesday that the new law puts children under 12 who are ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in “harm’s way.”
“Lifting simple, effective and scientifically proven measures that can reduce the spread of COVID-19 so that children, teachers and school staff stay safe against a deadly disease is one of the most dangerous things that our Arizona state legislature and Gov. (Doug) Ducey can do right now,” Harrel said.
“The decision to prohibit these schools from requiring masks be worn is quite reckless, dangerous and shortsighted. The decision is not informed by science or evidence.”
She also pointed out that the new law does not apply to private schools, meaning children of working families and of Black and Latino communities will be most impacted by the policy that takes away a layer of protection against COVID-19. This might deepen long-term effects on those children’s health and quality of life, Harrel said.
Arizona’s 1.1 million public and charter school students are 45% Latino and 5% Black, according to Arizona Department of Education figures.
The measure prohibiting mask mandates at schools was added to the annual spending plan late in the legislative session to win the votes of a handful of Republican lawmakers who said they wouldn’t support the $12,8 billion spending plan absent that provision. Those lawmakers included Sens. Kelly Townsend of Mesa and Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale and Rep. Jake Hoffman of Queen Creek, The Arizona Republic reported.
The change in state law follows an April decision from Gov. Doug Ducey to rescind mask requirements in schools, which Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman called embarrassing. In a press release, Ducey said it would be up to school leaders to decide if the use of masks should be required on their campuses.
Less than three months later — on a day when COVID-19 cases in Arizona jumped by 30% — Ducey took that power away when he signed the budget.
Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, a professor of epidemiology in Tucson, said “masks work” in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and she worried young children — who are not eligible for vaccines — will be at risk of infection when school resumes in August. The decision to ban masks does not save lives, she said.
“Banning schools from adopting a simple, cost-effective and scientifically-proven safety measure like mask-wearing while we are still in the midst of a pandemic makes absolutely no scientific or public health sense,” Jacobs said.
This week, Arizona reached a grim milestone of 18,000 deaths from COVID-19. More than 3 million people, or about 44% of the state’s population, is fully vaccinated, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services.
Dr. Ricardo Correa, an endocrinologist in Phoenix, said the new delta variant of COVID-19 is more transmissible and known to mostly impact those who are unvaccinated, which often means young people. He worried that this trend coupled with the mask prohibition measure in schools and the state’s low vaccination rate might lead to another wave of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.
“As health experts we are alarmed by the increase of teens hospitalized with COVID-19 and the Delta variant of COVID-19,” Correa said. “We must continue widespread mask use and we must step up our vaccination rate, including vaccination for youth age 12 and up.”
Harrel, Jacobs and Correa encouraged mask wearing as a protective measure to prevent COVID-19 infections and reiterated that the pandemic is not over.
“COVID-19 has not disappeared,” Correa said.
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