Arizona health officials on Thursday mandated that students wear face coverings in school, on buses and at school activities, an emergency order that school officials called a step in the right direction, but not enough.
The order by Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ follows Gov. Doug Ducey’s order this summer that directed schools to implement policies requiring masks for students and staff to stem the spread of COVID-19. Christ’s order takes it one step further.
“The emergency measure reinforces the mask mandate in schools as issued by the Governor earlier in the summer,” said a health department statement announcing the order. “It specifically calls for masks to be worn on school buses and during all school-sanctioned activities.”
Heidi Vega, communications director for the Arizona School Board Association, said the order will help take some pressure off local school boards, which have been bombarded by anxious parents demanding to know whether schools will be open and how. But the immediate impact in the classroom will be minimal, she said.
“Children that are in classes are already wearing masks, that’s something that’s already happening,” Vega said. “When it’s not a requirement from the state, and the local school districts are making it (the decision), that can lead to different perspectives and conflict with differences in opinion.”
Christ’s order came one day after Ducey reiterated the importance of masks to slow the pandemic – but again stopped short of issuing a statewide mask mandate. That leaves Arizona as one of 14 states without a statewide mandate, although the majority of the state’s population lives in counties that have local mask ordinances.
In a press briefing Wednesday, Ducey said he was pleased with the adherence to local mask mandates around the state, making a statewide requirement unnecessary.
“Masks work,” Ducey said. “What I want to do is take something that I believe works, that we have confidence does work, and make sure we have the widest and broadest compliance.”
Ducey also reiterated his stance on kids in schools, saying Arizona’s kids need to be in the classroom.
“Kids have missed out on far too much learning due to this pandemic,” he said.
Arizona had confirmed 287,225 COVID-19 cases as of Thursday and 6,384 deaths related to the disease, according to data from the health department.
After a steep drop in cases from this summer, when Arizona was a national hotspot for the disease, infections and deaths have started climbing again in recent weeks as winter weather sets in. An average of more than 2,900 cases have been reported every day for the past week, with 4,123 reported on Thursday alone.
“Based on recently released data, we now know masks provide more protection than previously thought,” Christ said. “The new studies show that wearing a mask also protects the mask wearer, not just those around them. I encourage everyone to wear a mask whenever they are around people they don’t live with.”
While school officials welcomed Christ’s order, they called on the state to take a more aggressive role in the fight against the pandemic.
“Any effort to slow the spread is welcome & needed. But, we must do more to minimize the spread of #COVID19,” Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman said in a tweet Wednesday. “The bottom line is – More aggressive action from the state is needed.”
Arizona lets local school officials decide what type of schooling they should offer – virtual, in-person or a combination of the two – based on the severity of COVID-19 spread in their county, and on benchmarks set by the health department.
Virtual teaching is recommended for counties with a severe infection rate and in-person learning is possible for those with a minimal rate, while “moderate” counties are steered toward hybrid schooling. As of this week, Greenlee County was at the minimal benchmark and every other county was moderate.
Jake Logan, CEO and president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association, said most school officials understand how state leaders are trying to support schools.
“I think that the governor and director Christ are trying to take steps to make sure we are doing everything we can to stop the spread of the virus,” Logan said.
Logan said he will leave the decision of implementing stronger mandates up to elected state officials, but that there is value in simply reminding the public of the importance of masks.
“I know everyone is trying to balance out public safety and the needs of our students and our families,” Logan said. “I think overall what’s positive about it (Christ’s order), is that it serves as a reminder of how important it is to wear masks.”
Story by Joycelyn Cabrera, Cronkite News