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Tucson Opinion: Mask use in schools needed now, but ultimately temporary
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Tucson Opinion: Mask use in schools needed now, but ultimately temporary

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John Carruth is the superintendent of Vail School District.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Last Tuesday evening, concerns over the Vail School District’s mask policy boiled over, requiring the cancellation of our scheduled governing board meeting.

Safety concerns caused the cancellation of a board meeting in the Tanque Verde School District the next evening. Several school districts around the state have reported the need for law enforcement support in order to conduct peaceful open public meetings.

This past year has been intense and emotional. Providing education during this pandemic has produced an endless series of new challenges to overcome for parents and educators alike.

We have largely been successful in navigating those challenges with hard work from our educators, our partnerships with parents and our shared care for their children.

In Vail, our motto is, “Where Education is a Community Effort.” We welcome the voice of parents in shaping critical decisions within our district. This year, we have held six public, town hall meetings as well as meeting with several large groups of parents who voiced specific concerns.

Many parents who are concerned about the health risk at schools, even with masks, continue to keep their children at home doing online learning. Online learning is also an option for parents who do not want their children to wear masks.

The pandemic has brought about many equal yet opposite truths. While some might label the truth of another as an opinion, that is rarely the belief of the holder of that truth.

The science and data around COVID-19 is evolving and unfolding only a half-step ahead of practice, which makes fertile ground for confusion and misinformation.

As educators, we must be pragmatists. Public education is a rare institution where people of all opinions and values come together for a common purpose — educating our young people. We must respect the opinions of all parents and then try to navigate the best path forward for everyone.

Using science and data to unite people around an emotional issue is rarely successful. I learned a long time ago that it is a fool’s errand to bring data to a faith fight.

We must rely on public health professionals for their guidance in helping to navigate this pandemic. Public school districts, like the military, law enforcement and Border Patrol have a legal obligation to do so.

This is also the case with most businesses and employers in our area. The CDC and the Pima County Health Department are the lead public health professionals in our county providing that guidance. Both organizations continue to strongly support the proper use of face masks, especially in indoor settings.

According to the Pima County Health Department, all schools in our county (whether district or charter) have at least an indoor mask requirement. Additionally, every major employer in Pima County, along with every federal, state and local government entity, continues to have a mask requirement.

Like educators, first responders and law enforcement officers have had the opportunity to receive a vaccination. These groups continue to have face mask requirements.

Raytheon and IBM, two of the largest private employers in our area, have similar requirements in place. For at least the next month, shouldn’t educators and students have the same expectation?

I can appreciate people feeling so strongly about an issue that they choose to protest. I struggle to understand why people — many who do not have children in our schools — are choosing schools as the site of their protest.

If the passion around this issue is consistent, wouldn’t we also be hearing about protests at the many major employers, businesses and other public spaces in Pima County that are requiring everyone, including children, to wear a mask?

It appears that we are on the backside of this terrible pandemic. It has taken a toll on all of us, but we cannot let it take our civility.

Our students deserve more from us. They deserve an end to the school year with the least amount of disruptions. With only 20 days of school left, it is prudent to continue mitigation strategies known to both students and staff so they can finish the year safe and strong.

The mitigation strategies, including the use of masks, are temporary. Soon enough, they will all be in the past. What is likely to linger is the memory of how we treated each other. Let us not focus on what divides us, but on what unites us; the love for the children of our community.

John Carruth is superintendent of Vail Unified School District.

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