The Vail School District called the police before its public board meeting even started.
Anti-mask protesters outside of the building pushed their way past staff while the board was still meeting behind closed doors.
The crowd — made up of parents and others who had no ties to the district or even Pima County — refused to wear masks inside of the building as required. Some protesters yelled at staff while pushing past them. A few were even armed. The goal was to get the district to drop its mask mandate. That’s when Vail staff called the police.
When sheriff’s deputies responded and couldn’t get the growing crowd to leave, they recommended that the district adjourn the meeting, district staff said.
Superintendent John Carruth says those who forced their way into the building are a very small minority, whose intent was to disrupt.
“And that silenced the voices of many parents who had legitimate issues they wanted to raise with us,” he said.
But even after the meeting was officially ended, the crowd outside grew.
Many in the crowd talked about children’s mental health and the rise in teen suicide. The Vail School District had two students die by suicide this year.
Vail parents in attendance said their kids are depressed, uncomfortable, not able to play and getting headaches because of the mask requirement.
Teenage depression and cases of suicide in the district made Vail mom Stephanie Carpenter get involved and speak up against social distancing and mask mandates.
“I think that the children need to see each other’s faces and smile at each other,” she said.
She was at the protest with her two third-grade daughters Mia and Stella.
But Carpenter, like numerous other parents, said they were showing up to peacefully protest.
Belle Scrum, who has two daughters in the district, in eighth and ninth grades, says masks are demoralizing for her daughters and make it hard for them to breath and run. She says one of her daughters has been depressed after a year of upheavals.
“Let the parents make the choice for their children,” she said. “It’s nobody else’s choice. That’s just the way it is. … God gave them to me so I get to make their decisions and what’s best for them.”
Pima County has a mask mandate in place despite Gov. Doug Ducey making masks in schools optional on April 19.
“We believe that our mask mandate is legal and valid until 90 days after this legislature adjourns,” said Pima County Health Director Dr. Francisco Garcia during a press briefing last week. “And because we have this short window of time to get people vaccinated, we’re going to double down and do everything that we can in order to encourage people, cajole, incentivize people to be observant of that mask mandate. I really believe that it has an impact on the infection in this community.”
Even Tucson charter schools that were lax about some of COVID-19 protocols — opening for in-person learning before the local health department deemed it safe — are still requiring masks, saying that they are required to by the county.
Vail Governing Board President Jon Aitken says the board had planned on listening to parents’ concerns “respectfully and constructively.”
“The reality is that we are still governed, more or less, by Pima County guidelines, city of Tucson, Arizona Department of Health Services guidelines, CDC guidelines,” he said. “I mean, there’s a whole list of acronyms that were still recommending face coverings in place, but we recognize that there was some percentage of our population that wanted to have their voice heard.”
And although Ducey said he was following CDC guidelines when he removed the mask mandate, the CDC website says, “All schools should implement and layer prevention strategies and should prioritize universal and correct use of masks and physical distancing.”
Even the state health department’s own guidelines say all schools should prioritize universal and correct use of masks in K-12 schools regardless of the level of community transmission.
“This was a concern when the governor came out with his message,” said Pima County School Superintendent Dustin Williams. “We knew it was going to cause confusion, we knew it was going to fuel the fire, and it did exactly that. If that was his purpose then he got what he was looking for.”
But in the Vail School District with more than 13,600 students, the vocal few don’t necessarily represent the larger community.
In a Vail parent Facebook group, a post asked parents’ opinions on mask wearing, and the majority of comments asked for masking in schools to continue.
“I strongly support wearing masks,” wrote one mom. “The only justification for removing a mask requirement should be data driven. … My kids don’t even notice their masks and honestly they’ve enjoyed accessorizing while also protecting others in the community. I wear a mask all day at work, too, and have no issues continuing to do so since it is in the best interests of the community. It’s a small sacrifice and will get us all back to normalcy sooner.”
The Facebook thread was later removed due to members of the group reporting to the admin that they were getting threatening private messages.
Most school districts in Pima County say they’ve heard very little pushback on the mask mandate, and if anything heard gratitude for the continued precaution, as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county are still moderate.
Protesters said they would take similar actions in districts like Tanque Verde, Sahuarita and Marana. Though the Tanque Verde School District canceled its scheduled board meeting Wednesday night in anticipation of protests.
“There’s a portion of the population that is opposed to wearing masks in schools, but a good percentage of our parents that have been giving feedback have been supporting the current policy, which is to wear face masks,” said Tanque Verde spokeswoman Claire Place.