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Court: Arizona schools can require students and staff to wear masks
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Court: Arizona schools can require students and staff to wear masks

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Claudia Robinson, left, and her daughter, Isabella, 12, sport masks on the first day of school at L.W. Cross Middle School, 1000 W. Chapala Dr.

Arizona schools are free to require students and staff to wear masks on campus, at least for the time being.

But that power may disappear Sept. 29.

In a ruling Monday, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner said the state law banning such mandates approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature at the end of June is not yet in effect.

Under Arizona law, new laws are effective 90 days after the legislative session ends, which is Sept. 29 this year.

Warner acknowledged that there is an exception for emergency measures. But he said this does not qualify.

“They require a two-thirds vote, and this statute was not approved by a two-thirds majority,” Warner wrote.

The judge also said a clause in the measure making it retroactive to July 1 is legally meaningless.

“A retroactivity clause is not an emergency clause and cannot be used to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement needed to make a statute immediately effective,” he said.

Warner was no more impressed by arguments by Alexander Kolodin, attorney for a teacher in the Phoenix Union High School district who is challenging the mask requirement, that HB 2898, which contains the ban on mask mandates is an appropriations measure. In general, such bills are immediately effective.

“This statute is not an appropriation measure,” the judge wrote. “It is a regulation of school districts.”

And Warner said the fact that lawmakers tucked the language into a bill that also includes some appropriation of funds does not also convert this provision into an appropriation.

Monday’s ruling most immediately keeps in place the requirement enacted by the Phoenix Union board earlier this month. Chad Getson, the district superintendent, said the goal was not to defy the state but instead to protect the 32,000 students and staff from COVID-19.

But while Warner’s ruling sets no precedents, it gives added strength to similar restrictions imposed by Tucson Unified School District and other districts around the state that have decided, at least for the time being, to require those coming on campus to wear face coverings.

That was emphasized in a statement by Richard Franco, a spokesman for Phoenix Union, who said the ruling is larger than just how it affects his district.

“It has the potential to impact the 1.1 million students who call Arizona’s public schools home, as well as their families and the broader community,” he said. “This decision will allow districts across the state to continue to prioritize the health, safety and wellness of their staff, students and families.”

The Amphitheater and Catalina Foothills school districts will be joining TUSD in requiring masks, starting Tuesday, Aug. 17. Many other Tucson school district said they are either not revisiting a mask mandate at this time or they still need to discuss it with their boards.

TUSD Board Member Adelita Grijalva hopes that Monday’s ruling will take the burden off some of the school districts that feel a mask mandate is best for the safety of their school community.

“Considering the incredible increase in the number of pediatric cases in Pima County, in the short period of time that school has been in session, my hope is that we will see more districts join Tucson Unified in requiring masks on campus,” she said.

Since July 20, when Pima County schools began to open, there have been 581 cases and 27 outbreaks in Tucson schools. The majority of those cases were in children, split between those who are eligible for a vaccine and those who are still too young.

“The numbers are really clear that who’s getting hit the hardest are 0- to 11-year-olds that have no way to protect themselves,” Grijalva said.

The court ruling honors the constitutional concerns that TUSD has expressed since the passage of the law banning any mask mandate in schools, the district said in a statement.

“At every phase of the pandemic, we have been committed to making decisions based on guidance from public health officials at the local, state and national level and will continue to do so,” the statement said. “The health and well-being of our students and staff remain our top priority and primary responsibility.”

The ruling did not sit well with Gov. Doug Ducey who has actively opposed mask mandates — and who signed the legislation banning them that Warner said Monday is not enforceable.

“Kids need a stable learning environment,” said press aide C.J. Karamargin in a prepared statement.

“Temporary mandates and efforts to flout the law aren’t going to help them,” he continued. “Kids should be in school, learning, and their parents should be the ones making decisions.”

Monday’s ruling, however, is far from the last word on the issue.

Warner emphasized that he is not making any decisions on the merits or even the legality of the law itself, but only its effective date. But the judge did tip his hand, at least a bit, suggesting that he believes that the restriction on mask policies enacted by lawmakers is valid — or, at least will be when it takes effect.

“Phoenix Union High School District cites no legal authority that this statute is beyond the Legislature’s powers,” Warner wrote. “Indeed, Arizona law expressly limits school districts’ authority to policies that are ‘not inconsistent with law.’”

In fact, the judge refused to dismiss Kolodin’s entire lawsuit, essentially inviting the attorney to return to court if Phoenix Union intends to keep its policy in place.

“We are pleased the judge recognized that the Legislature has the authority to prohibit schools from imposing mask mandates,” Kolodin said.

There is, however, another legal argument that could protect the mask mandates in the future.

In a separate lawsuit, attorney Roopali Desai contends that the anti-mask provision in HB 2898 was unconstitutionally enacted.

Desai, representing a coalition of educators, school boards, child advocates and others is not arguing that a ban on mask requirements, by itself, is illegal.

But what is illegal, she contends, is putting that prohibition into a 231-page bill simply labeled as “appropriating monies; relating to kindergarten through grade 12 budget reconciliation.” That Desai said, runs afoul of constitutional requirements that all bills contain but one subject and that the title must reflect what is in each bill.

No date has been set for a hearing on that lawsuit.

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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