Masks On The Bus, But Not In The Classroom: Schools Confront Muddled Covid Protocols

Allison Shelley via Flickr

Last week, the Kyrene School District in Maricopa County began rushing to put together a new reopening plan.

Two days before the district's 25 elementary and middle schools were set to bring students back to the classroom, the CDC reversed course on its health guidance for students. In regions where virus transmission is high, the agency said on July 27, schools should implement universal masking, a recommendation echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Cases have been spiking in Maricopa County. But in Arizona, a state law passed this summer prevents schools from enforcing student mask mandates. Public health experts, Arizona’s state superintendent, and teachers unions have all called on Governor Doug Ducey to reverse the policy, but he hasn’t budged — and, last week, he declared the new federal guidance “unnecessary and unhelpful," and said he was not considering revisions.

By Wednesday, Kyrene had announced updated health protocols. Students at district schools will be required to wear masks on the school bus or other school transit. Once students enter the building, however — and fall under the state statute’s jurisdiction — masks will become optional.

Other schools around Phoenix, including the Madison School District, Osborn School District, and Paradise Valley Unified District, have also adopted the patchwork policy, resulting from the snarl of often-conflicting laws and public health guidance that Arizona schools are confronting as the fall begins.

Kyrene district's legal counsel, said spokesperson Erin Helm, had “looked at what we can do within the law to follow that CDC stronger mask guideline,” and concluded that, in fact, school buses were subject to the federal government’s mask mandate on public transportation, which could supersede Arizona’s state law.

Reactions from parents have, so far, been mixed; in Kyrene, some have pushed back, calling the policy “a power grab.” There was, Helm admitted, “no decision related to Covid that is universally loved.”

“It’s causing a lot of fighting, just to be frank,” said Amanda Schneider, a mother in Tempe whose three sons attend Kyrene district schools. “There’s arguing among parents in the community because we don’t have that direction from the state.” Her husband, she said, had worn a mask to the school, only to encounter eye rolls from some other parents. Conflict had erupted between their longtime friends that had landed on opposing sides of the issue.

And Schneider said she worries for her children, two of whom are too young to receive the vaccine, and will be attending school without any mask requirement indoors. As school began on Thursday, Schneider found herself moving “from feeling helpless to angry to frustrated to unsure,” she said, though she appreciated the district’s last-minute changes to its health protocols.

"Districts' hands are tied,” said Heidi Otero, a spokesperson for the Arizona School Boards Association. “They’re just trying to work around [the state ban].” Some districts, she said, had begun collecting lists of students whose parents wanted them to be masked at school so that teachers could enforce them in the classroom. Others have set up vaccine clinics on school grounds.

So far, the state has not pushed back on school bus mask requirements, though elsewhere in the country, they have become a point of controversy. South Carolina, which has a mask mandate ban in place that is similar to Arizona's, informed districts in July that they could not require masks on buses, as the vehicles were school property.

Ducey's office has, however, threatened school districts over other Covid policies in recent weeks. Two districts — Peoria Unified and Catalina Foothills, in Tucson — received a letter from the governor’s office in July, demanding that they "immediately" rescind a policy that required unvaccinated students to quarantine upon exposure to the coronavirus. Education advisor Kaitlin Harrier argued that the policy violated a state law that prevents schools from requiring vaccines for in-person learning; attorneys for the district responded that they were just following CDC guidance.

Some districts, meanwhile, have chosen to defy the state laws entirely. On Friday, Phoenix Union High School District announced that it was instituting a universal mask mandate in its schools “in an effort to protect our staff, students, and community.” So far, the governor's office has not issued a response.

Most schools, though, will be following state orders to keep masks optional in classrooms. And students are heading back to school as statewide cases reach higher levels than they have in months.

Already, one school district, Ash Fork in Yavapai County, has shuttered its schools, following an outbreak that infected 13 students and several staff. As it readies to reopen schools again this week, school officials are urging students to wear their masks.