Tucson Unified School District is requiring all staffers, students and visitors to wear masks at all its school sites when the school year begins on Thursday, Aug. 5.
The TUSD decision defies a new state law that bans public schools from issuing mask mandates.
“While Gov. (Doug) Ducey and the state Legislature has decided to ignore the advice of our public health experts and endanger our community, we can’t sit idle and watch COVID inevitably spread throughout our schools and devastate so many TUSD families,” said board member Ravi Grivois-Shah during an emergency Governing Board meeting Wednesday morning. “This is why I will support, along with my colleagues, a requirement to have masks on TUSD campuses and authorize TUSD to enforce this.”
The board passed the measure 4-0. Board President Leila Counts was not present for the vote.
Masking in schools is an important mitigation measure to slow the spread of COVID-19, and especially the new delta variant, health agencies at the county, state and federal level all say.
This week, with Tucson classrooms back at capacity, as nearly 140,000 children across Pima County are returning to classrooms in person, indoor masking is one of the remaining virus mitigation measures schools have left. Social distancing is problematic at most school sites because of large class sizes, and there’s a state ban on a vaccine mandate. Further, a vaccine is unavailable to anyone younger than 12 years old.
Between July 20 and Aug. 2, there were 102 virus cases in Pima County schools and 11 outbreaks, according to data from the Health Department. Those figures occurred when most schools here were not yet open.
At the end of July, cases in schools accounted for about 8% of the Pima County’s total reported cases, compared to 4% of total cases during last school year — when masks were required. The county also has seen an increase in pediatric admissions and ER visits in children over the last two weeks of July.
Vail Unified is the only Tucson school district that has been open for two weeks. Without a mask mandate, the district has 57 current COVID-19 cases in students and 12 in staff workers.
The county Health Department has already temporarily closed three Vail classrooms and told staffers and students to quarantine.
“Last year, schools had a number of tools that are no longer available,” said Vail Superintendent John Carruth. “They had the ability to do hybrid learning with smaller class sizes, require face coverings and close classrooms if needed. This year, Vail has two instructional options for families — fully in person and fully remote. With all of our teachers assigned to in-person or fully remote instruction, we are leaning on structures we built last year to support students when (the Health Department) requires them to quarantine.”
And while some parents, especially those with children not old enough to be vaccinated, fear for their children’s safety in a packed classroom with unmasked people, other parents are staunchly against mask mandates, saying it is unnecessary and even harmful.
In an informal survey by the Arizona Daily Star, with 180 participants two weeks ago when the COVID-19 numbers were lower, less than a third of respondents said masks should be optional, in line with the new state law. The other two-thirds said masks should be required or schools should at least have the option to require them.
TUSD, with about 42,000 students, follows at least two other school districts in the state, the Phoenix Union High and Phoenix Elementary school districts, in defying the governor and state Legislature by requiring masks.
A Phoenix Union teacher sued the district over the mandate, but a court hearing on the case that was set for Wednesday morning was postponed until next week.
Science teacher Douglas Hester filed a lawsuit against the Phoenix Union school district’s board members and superintendent on Aug. 2, saying the mandate is illegal and can’t be enforced. A hearing on the case is set for Aug. 13.
While most Tucson school districts are strongly recommending that students and staff wear masks indoors, most have also said they don’t intend on mandating masks, including Vail, Marana, Amphitheater, Sahuarita, Sunnyside and Tanque Verde.
TUSD Board Member Adelita Grijalva said the mask mandate is necessary for the following reasons: More children are getting sick from the new COVID variant; new evidence has shown that fully vaccinated people may still be able to transmit the virus; the delta variant appears to be more contagious than chickenpox; and many students in the district are too young to be vaccinated.
“Probably over 30% of our district cannot be vaccinated because of age,” she said. “I know my youngest can’t. I know many of our children cannot or their friends cannot, and so we have to do everything we can in the district to ensure their safety. That’s our No. 1 priority.”