The Republican-dominated Legislature banned mask mandates on all school campuses, effectively ending the long-running debate over whether Scottsdale Unified should require masks next year.

The measure “prohibits a county, city, town, school district governing board or charter school governing body from requiring students or staff use face coverings during school hours and on school property.”

That means districts not only are forbidden from requiring students and staff to wear masks in classrooms but also cannot require them for visitors to schools or citizens attending governing board meetings. Nothing prevents parents from making their own child wear a mask in school.

The ban deprives districts of a tool many relied on to help reduce  COVID-19 transmission levels in the community as well as in schools.  And it comes as the more contagious Delta variant of the virus looms as a threat.

Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said, “As far as the ban on masks, we think the biggest thing to emphasize is that now with variants causing concerns, it will be on the Legislature to deal with the debate over masks. 

“Districts and school boards are now powerless to implement any mask measures without the legislature say so even if the CDC recommends. This will cause problems in the fall with the Legislature out of session.”

While the measure does not proscribe penalties for entities that violate the ban on mask mandates, it was denounced by former state health director Will Humble, executive director for the Arizona Public Health Association, who called the measure “stupid.”

“It’s harmful, it’s ill-advised. They know it’s harmful – they being (state health) director Cara Christ and Governor Ducey. They wanted to flex their muscles and so they made sure that that was put into the budget reconciliation bill and now districts and parents are going to have to live with it.”

 The measure is one of dozens that were tacked on without any hearing to the state budget bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey June 30. 

Although the Centers for Disease Control said on July 9 that vaccinated students and staff don't need masks in schools, another measure by the Legislature forbids districts from requiring COVID vaccinations or a mask for in-classroom instruction.

The mask mandate ban was sponsored by Kingman Republican Rep. and dentist Regina Cobb, who represents the district that includes Lake Havasu.

According to Today’s News-Herald Havasu News, Cobb and the rest of that district’s delegation had lobbied Lake Havasu officials to lift their mask requirement as early as last September, although it is unclear if they had also joined parents pressing the school board to lifting its mandate, which expired at the end of the school year.

Cobb and her two district colleagues had  joined the Mohave County Board of Supervisors in sending a letter to the governor in May of last year that demanded he lift restrictions on businesses. 

Cobb also appeared before Kingman City Council to criticize its mask mandate in September, according to the Mohave Valley Daily News, which quoted her as telling officials:

 “I have heard from many local citizens of how divisive this proclamation has been to our community. This is a blanket violation of our constitutional rights and civil liberties.”

Scottsdale Unified required masks right up to the end of the school year.

However, Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel sent a letter to parents on May 14 notifying them that district had planned to make masks optional next school year.

“The recent legislation simply makes that a requirement for all districts,” Menzel told the Progress. “SUSD will still continue to encourage those who have not been vaccinated to wear a mask while on district property, but ultimately, the decision is up to each individual and family.”

He said the district will continue to implement other mitigation measures and stay in communication with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

“Ensuring a healthy and safe school environment for students and staff remains our goal,” Menzel said.

As they have been throughout the country, the district’s mask mandate was a polarizing subject in the community. 

SUSD Governing Board President Jann-Michael Greenburg has long been critical of the governor’s decision last year to punt the mask decision to individual school districts, arguing those decisions are best left to public health officials.

He said that decision left districts in a no-win situation where it had to deal with “angry parents who were fighting us every step of the way on this on both sides – people who wanted masks all the time, people who wanted social distancing all the time, people who wanted the schools to remain closed, and then people on the other side who just didn’t want any of that.”

The issue came to a head at an SUSD school board meeting on May 18 when a group of unruly attendees – including some Scottsdale parents as well as outside groups like the conservative Patriot Party of Arizona and Purple for Parents –  refused to wear masks, prompting the board to suspend the meeting.

Though Greenburg has long said districts are not the best bodies to craft those mask policies, he was still critical of last month's move by the legislature and governor.

“Now, they’re saying ‘no, school districts can’t be making that decision at all; it is the health officials,’” Greenburg said. “But our health officials again this year took no action, so I think it’s a bad policy.”

The Legislature’s approval of the ban on mandates was split along party lines and drew support from no Democratic representative or senator, including the all-Democrat LD 24 delegation made up of Sen. Lela Alston and Reps. Amish Shah and Jennifer Longdon, who represent southern Scottsdale.

The all-Republican LD 23 delegation, which covers much of the rest of the city, voted for the measure.

The new ban comes at a time when vaccination rates are flagging and when the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 has been spreading across Arizona and the rest of the country. 

“I think in the end, we’re going to have another event in the next 50 to 100 years, or even sooner depending on these variants, and if the answer is that the state government is going to just do nothing about it, and local government officials can’t do anything about it like school districts, I think it’ll just make the situation much worse,” Greenburg said.

Three medical professionals – Dr. Cadey Harrel, family physician in Tucson and the Arizona State Lead for the Committee to Protect Health Care; Dr. Ricardo Correa, an endocrinologist in Phoenix; and Dr. Elizabeth Jacobs, professor of epidemiology – held a press conference last week to condemn the ban on mask mandates.

Noting there are about 610,000 children under 12 in Arizona who are not eligible for a vaccine, Harrell said “the Legislature’s decision puts them in harm’s way.”

“And that’s unacceptable,” she said. “In fact, it’s reprehensible.”

Correa said adolescents who contract COVID-19 have a higher hospitalization rate.

“Arizona legislators should be more concerned about protecting public health and safety, not scoring political points and appeasing their base by making bad decisions,” he said.

Humble said that people who need to worry about that variant – which some experts said appears to trigger more serious cases of COVID-19 infection and most hospitalizations – are those who have not been vaccinated.

And that includes most K-12 students, especially those in lower grades who have not been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration to get COVID shots.

“The K-5 kids – none of them will be vaccinated,” Humble said. “And K6-12 – the vaccination rates are pretty poor still and Pfizer is so far the only one that can go below age 16.”

“As a new school year begins, though, there are still risks with this virus and particularly because of Delta – it’s a lot easier to catch it,” he continued. “It’s dangerous in that it just spreads so much easier but once you get it, it’s not worse than Alpha.”

The Arizona Department of Health Services said 49.6 percent of all eligible Arizonans had received at least one dose of the vaccine. 

When considering only those age 18 and older, that number in Arizona rose to 62.2 percent, according to an analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That was good for 29th place among states and the District of Columbia.

Nationally, the overall full vaccination rate is 43.7 percent and those who have received one shot comprise 51 percent of the nation's eligible population. 

The Maricopa County data, which also break down partially and fully vaccinated people, show that 46 percent of county residents are fully vaccinated. 

That data – which does not measure vaccinations within school district boundaries – shows 62.3 percent of eligible Scottsdale residents – and 57.3 percent of the city’s total population – are fully vaccinated

Rates are lower for other cities that feed into SUSD, including Tempe, where 48.7 percent of eligible residents are fully vaccinated – slightly higher than Phoenix’s 45.4 percent, according to data released last week by the county.

But data released last week show case numbers are on the rise within SUSD boundaries, and the county upgraded the area from “moderate” to substantial” transmission.

The data showed that new cases per 100,000 residents nearly doubled from 33 to 60 from the end of June to the beginning of July.

It also showed that percent positivity on COVID-19 tests increased from 3.33 percent from June 20 to 26 to 5.42 percent from June 27 to July 3.

Humble said the mask mandate ban had been in the works for days and condemned state Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ for keeping silent. DHS did not respond to a request for comment.

He also rapped Ducey for approving the measure.

“From a public health point of view and local control point of view, it’s also hypocritical because he keeps saying he’s in favor of school choice. Well, this definitely takes away choice from parents," Humble said, adding:

"There’s no district in the whole state where they can take their kid – especially one who is immunocompromised – that’s going to have assurances that the faculty and students are going to be wearing masks.”