Schools Seeing Relief, Conflicts Since Arizona Lifted School Mask Mandate

By Rocio Hernandez
Published: Friday, May 7, 2021 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, May 7, 2021 - 8:04am

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J.O. Combs school district classroom
J.O. Combs Unified School District
The J.O. Combs Unified School is among school districts no longer requiring masks after a new executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey. But it's still continuing social distancing, increased sanitation and cohorting.

Requiring masks in school was never what Pima Unified School District wanted to do. 

But last year, Gov. Doug Ducey and the Arizona Department of Health Services issued orders requiring masks in school districts and charter schools. The rural district in a Republican community in southeastern Arizona had no other choice but to comply. It was a "tremendous burden" for Pima Unified students and staff, said Superintendent Sean Rickert. 

Sean Rickert
Pima Unified School District
Pima Unified School District Superintendent Sean Rickert says wearing masks was a "tremendous burden" on his students and teachers and impeded learning. They are relieved that they no longer have to wear masks following a new executive order.

“For kids in kindergarten, first, second grade when they can’t get those visual cues from the teacher’s face it stops them from being able to progress as well," he said. "Likewise when teachers can't read the students' face, it's not easy from them to tell when students are ready to move on to the next things, which students were ready to move on to the next things. 

At higher grade levels, Rickert said the masks create constant fights between reluctant students and staff. 

"When students are teachers are constantly at odds, then the relationships that you need to be able to form for kids to learn are negatively affected," he added. 

But then in mid-April, Ducey issued a new executive order that lifted the state mandate, and left masking decisions to school districts and charters. 

“Nearly 2 million Arizonans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with many teachers and school faculty now fully vaccinated after being some of the first in line for vaccine prioritization,” Ducey said in an April 19 statement. “Teachers, families and students have acted responsibly to mitigate the spread of the virus and protect one another, and our school leaders are ready to decide if masks should be required on their campuses.

The news was a relief for Rickert and his kindergarten students. 

“I have never seen so many big, gap tooth smiles in my life. Those kids were so happy to not have to wear those masks anymore," Rickert said. "That was a lot of fun, but it also kind of spoke to the fact that yeah we put kids through something this year by having to wear masks at schools.”

More than two weeks after Ducey's action, Rickert said hardly anyone is wearing masks in Pima Unified school and his school district of 1,000 students hasn’t seen an increase of COVID-19 cases and transmission since getting rid of masks. 

Kayla Fulmer
J.O. Combs Unified School District
J.O. Combs Unified School District, which is no longer requiring masks, estimates that a majority of its students and staff are not wearing them at schools. Spokeswoman Kayla Fulmer says COVID-19 cases within its schools have remained low.

“The number of cases in Graham County continues to be between 100 and 110, and it has been since a month ago," he said. 

The J.O. Combs Unified School District in Pinal County is seeing similar trends.

“We haven’t seen a negative impact on our caseload, which is fantastic," said spokeswoman Kayla Fulmer. 

The J.O. Combs district, like Pima Unified, immediately made masks optional following the governor’s executive order since the district never adopted its own masking policy. Fulmer estimates that about a quarter of its students and staff are choosing to continue to wear masks in schools. Fulmer believes that percentage might be even lower at the high school level.   

"That’s I think reflective of the community that we serve and kind of work and live in," she added. 

J.O. Combs and Pima Unified have kept other mitigation strategies such as physical distancing, hand washing and cleaning in place. But pediatric infectious disease specialist Nathan Price said whether COVID-19 transmission within the districts will stay low remains to be seen. 

“If you have low rates in the community and you have people that aren’t particularly contagious then you may not see an increase and I’m sure that’s the hope that Governor Ducey has as he’s made that decision, but I think long story short it’s too early to tell," Price said. 

What schools are already seeing since masks were made optional  are new tensions between those who are choosing to keep their masks on and those who aren’t, said Marisol Garcia, vice president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. 

"It is heartbreaking because this was not needed near the end of the year," she said. "When you have students making fun of each other or students saying something to a teacher because they are wearing a mask, it’s just not the type of social interactions we should be supporting in the classrooms.” 

Marisol Garcia
Marisol Garcia
Arizona Education Association Vice President Marisol Garcia teachers and students who are choosing to wear masks in districts where they are optional are being bullied.

Ducey’s executive order has also renewed tensions between parents and school boards. Last week, the Vail Unified School District near Tucson had to cancel its board meeting after parents protesting its mask requirement forced their way into the board room. Something similar happened at a recent Chandler school board meeting, Garcia said. 

“They had to remove parents and arrest them because they walked into a governing board meeting with a weapon … I mean, for masks," she said. 

Price recommends students and school staff consider wearing masks at schools regardless of whatever officials decide to protect themselves and others. 

“We just don't know what's safe or not safe as far as community transmission rate and the way things have happened in Arizona and even other places when we let our guard down things get worse, and they can get worse quite quickly and with serious effects," he said. 

As school districts plan for next school year, Garcia hopes that they will include teachers, parents and students into discussions on what mitigation measures should be continued. 

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