Arizona school district defies state law, will mandate masks in fall

Phoenix Union High School district officials say they’re changing course to protect their employees and families.
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A large public school district in Arizona says it's going to enforce a mask mandate for all students, faculty and visitors regardless of vaccination status. While it follows guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it goes against a new state law enacted last month.

The Phoenix Union High School District announced Friday that it would change its previous rules that aligned with state law to follow CDC guidance, disregarding COVID-19 vaccination status in the latest mask mandate for students. Students return to class Monday, Aug. 2.

The district is one of only a handful of Arizona school systems that only serve high school students. It’s large, educating nearly 30,000 students and employing about 4,000 teachers, administrators and other staff.

In the release, district officials say they’re changing course to protect their employees and families.

“Recently, we have heard from our staff, students and families that they want us to realign our mitigation practices with the guidelines and recommendations of national and local health agencies,” they said, adding that they believe CDC guidance to be paramount. “Therefore, Phoenix Union will begin the school year on August 2 enforcing our existing Board-adopted mask requirement of universal indoor masking only, regardless of vaccination status.”

Gov. Doug Ducey's spokesman responded to the district announcement Friday afternoon, saying the edict has "no teeth," calling it unenforceable under Arizona law, which bans mask mandates.

"Arizona is not anti-mask, we’re anti-mask mandate," said spokesman CJ Karamargin. "As the governor has often said, mask usage is up to parents. If a parent wants their child to wear a mask at school, they are free to do so. This is not a state decision."

He said the issue is ultimately about personal responsibility and parental choice – something Arizona has long-supported.

"School administrators should be doing everything they can to encourage eligible students and staff to get vaccinated, not break state law," he said.

The CDC changed it’s guidance Tuesday to recommend people wear masks regardless of their vaccination status in areas of the country with the substantial spread of COVID-19, fueled by the more contagious delta variant.

Ducey responded to the CDC course change, criticizing President Joe Biden’s administration for undermining the historic national vaccination effort.

"Public health officials in Arizona and across the country have made it clear that the best protection against COVID-19 is the vaccine,” Ducey said in a release Tuesday. He said the announcement by the CDC “will unfortunately only diminish confidence in the vaccine and create more challenges for public health officials – people who have worked tirelessly to increase vaccination rates.”

The school board is scheduled to meet on Aug. 5, when they plan to discuss mitigation strategies further.