A new back-to-school item: Face masks - AZEdNews
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A new back-to-school item: Face masks

Abia Judd Elementary School Students Play At Recess On The First Day Of School Tuesday, Sept, 8, 2020. Photo Courtesy Prescott Unified School District

As students head back to school for in-person instruction, families are making sure they have new everyday accessories – face masks.

While Arizonans may choose to wear a mask or not elsewhere, all Arizona students, staff and visitors must wear a mask while in school classrooms, school buildings and on school buses.

“Last week, Supt. Hoffman and I sent a joint letter to schools reminding them of the importance of wearing masks in reducing the spread of COVID-19, and that mask use is required by Executive Order 2020-51,” said Dr. Cara Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

“We want everyone who needs a face mask to have access to that, so we have partnered with Hanes to provide five free face masks to students and their families. Families and schools can go to AZDHS.gov/ordermasks to get free masks shipped to their home,” Dr. Christ said.

When the school bus arrives at a stop, the first thing the driver’s going to do is check students are wearing masks, said Scott Thompson, Mesa Public Schools assistant superintendent.

“If a student’s not wearing a mask, we’re going to have masks available. Then Johnny’s going to basically proceed to the back of the bus. We’re going to load to the back so that kids aren’t walking past each other as they load onto the bus,” Thompson told The East Valley Tribune.

Students arrived wearing masks at their Prescott Unified School District campuses yesterday for their first day of a hybrid learning model.

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Prescott Unified School District students wearing masks while playing at recess. Photo courtesy Prescott Unified School District

“Students, staff, and families have been positively responsive to our mask policy for hybrid learning,” said Alexa Scholl, Prescott Unified’s health and safety coordinator. “Many families and staff members feel more confident moving to hybrid learning knowing that Prescott Unified School District is taking health and safety seriously, including enforcing our mask policy.”

Prescott Unified has been promoting its health and safety motto to help contain the spread of COVID-19 – “Stay Safe Top Three: Stay home when sick, physical distance and wear masks, and wash or sanitize hands often,” Scholl said.

“As a school district, if we do these things consistently, we can prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” Scholl said.

When in-person classes started at Morenci Unified School District last Monday, “masks have been a complete non-issue,” said Supt. David Woodall.

“We had only 3 or 4 students show up without a mask, and it was because they forgot,” Woodall said.

“We are encouraging teachers to take frequent mask breaks and get the kids outside where they can be mask free,” Dr. Woodall said.  

In an email to students’ families, Dysart Unified School District teachers encouraged parents to send their children to school with an extra face mask in their backpack in case the mask  they’re wearing breaks or needs to be replaced.

“Some challenges that we may face at the elementary level would be with  younger kids not understanding the importance of following the mitigation plan, not maintaining physical distance, and not keeping their masks on,” said Samantha Davis, a Queen Creek Unified School District governing board member.

“Overall, I believe the students are so grateful to be back in the classrooms, and I have seen firsthand that they are committed to doing what is needed and expected so that they can continue to learn in-person,” Davis said.

“We have shared the face covering regulation with our community and staff, so they understand the safety reason why face coverings are required, and they know the process to take if they feel they need an accommodation” said Karla Escamilla, senior coordinator of media and communications for Tucson Unified School District.

Tucson Unified’s policies and regulations covering COVID-19, like those of many other school districts, states that students who refuse to wear a face covering will be provided an opportunity for remote learning at home, staff will make reasonable attempts to contact the parent(s) or guardians to take the student home as soon as possible and parents shall pick up the student, or arrange for the student to be picked up, immediately.

“Masks are required for all students from kindergartners and all students ages 5 and up,” said Holly Williams, associate superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, during a Facebook Live on Aug. 26.

While accommodations for students and staff with special circumstances may be made, “masks play an important role in our safety protocol,” Williams said.

Gilbert Public Schools, and many other school districts, indicated in their policies that they understand some students cannot safely wear a face covering due to a physical disability that prohibits the student from putting on and taking off their own face coverings or a a cognitive disability that prohibits the student from putting on and taking off their own face coverings due to the inability to follow directions.

In these situations, these students are not required to wear face coverings nor will they need to have an exemption form completed, Gilbert Public Schools states in their face covering student exemption protocol.

Beth Griffith spent the summer trying to get her young son with autism comfortable with wearing a face mask, but on his first day back he was asked to get off the Mesa Public Schools bus for not wearing a face mask, she told The Arizona Republic.

Michele Knowlton-Thorne’s son on the autism spectrum attends school in a self-contained classroom in Kyrene School District and doesn’t have to wear a face mask due to an exemption for students with sensory challenges. But she is working with him on getting comfortable wearing a face mask, she said in the same article.

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Students in the classroom during their first day of hybrid learning at Prescott Unified School District. Photo courtesy Prescott Unified School District

If a student or staff member has a documented medical condition that makes wearing a mask difficult, Prescott Unified and its individual schools have been working with those individuals on accommodations such as wearing a face shield, Scholl said.

“Accommodation requests for individuals unable to tolerate a mask/ face covering for health concerns are very rare, but are considered on a case by case basis, using physician recommendations to guide outcomes,” said Escamilla with Tucson Unified. 

“There are certain types of face masks that can be used to put less stress on the respiratory system; if determined necessary, the district may assist employees with obtaining this type of device,” Escamilla said.

“Those unable to tolerate any type of face mask/covering may use a face shield and must remain physically distanced from others to avoid exposure to themselves and others,”  Escamilla said.

In Phoenix, Mayor Kate Gallego and other city leaders distributed masks and other items ordered to help Phoenix schools re-open, KTAR News 92.3 reports.

Many of the masks include clear windows so students can see teacher’s facial expressions and to help students with hearing impairments or other disabilities.

School nurses and health aides around the state have been using state and federal COVID-19 public health guidance to help create school health plans in preparation for students returning to in-person instruction, Christine Mahoney, a resource and education nurse at Mesa Public Schools told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

School nurses have been essential in school’s COVID-19 mitigation plans, helping design classroom layouts to ensure social distancing among students, preparing videos and classroom presentations for students about COVID-19 prevention, including physical distancing and wearing face masks, said Mahoney, a board member of the School Nurses Organization of Arizona.

At Apache Junction High School, economics and street law teacher Sharlah Reynolds said she is excited students will see classmates in-person now that hybrid learning has started.

“It’s not the same as sitting with your friend at lunch, and talking about you know, ‘Oh, I have this really bad day or oh, I really like this and so person. I think they need that,” Reynolds told KJZZ 91.5 FM. “I think they need to be around other people.”

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Abia Judd Elementary School students play at recess on the first day of school Tuesday, Sept, 8, 2020. Photo courtesy Prescott Unified School District