School districts respond to Gov’s office criticism for following public health COVID-19 recommendations - AZEdNews
Sections    Wednesday March 29th, 2023

School districts respond to Gov’s office criticism for following public health COVID-19 recommendations

Students From Mrs. Sears Second-grade Class At Copperwood Elementary Signing The Pledge Of Allegiance. Photo Courtesy Peoria Unified School District

Part 1 of the Back to school during a COVID surge series.

As families get ready to send their students back to school in coming weeks, two Arizona school districts following federal, state and county public health recommendations on COVID-19 quarantine for unvaccinated individuals have responded to criticism from the Office of the Arizona Governor.

Gov. Doug Ducey’s education policy adviser Kaitlin Harrier sent letters to Peoria Unified School District and Catalina Foothills Unified School District saying they must rescind immediately their policies for a mandatory 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated students who have a COVID-19 exposure that exempts vaccinated students from quarantine, because it “does not comply with state law” that states schools “may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.”

The legal counsel for both school districts – John C. Richardson with DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy and Denise Lowell-Britt with Udall | Shumway responded to Harrier and the Governor’s Office with a letter that said both school districts were in full compliance with the above-mentioned law.

The attorney’s said that “Nothing in A.RS. § 15-342.05 restricts a school district from following guidance provided by federal, state and local public health authorities with regard to students who have been exposed to COVID-19. These authorities uniformly provide that a temporary quarantine is the appropriate course of action except for students who can demonstrate that they have been fully vaccinated. It would not be appropriate or reasonable for school districts to ignore these public health standards, and A.RS. § 15-342.05 does not mandate that they do so.”

In addition, the attorneys’ letter to the Governor’s Office pointed out that “Simply stated, a student’s temporary quarantine in conformance with guidance published by the CDC, the Arizona Department of Health and the Pima and Maricopa County Health Departments does not violate either the letter ,or sprit of A.RS. § 15-342.05. Instead, this practice promotes public health.”

Peoria Unified is one of only a small handful of Arizona school districts that remained open to in-person learning from September of 2020 through the duration of the school year,” said Danielle Airey, director of communications and public relations for Peoria Unified School District to AZEdNews.

“We were able to safely meet the needs of our more than 36,000 students by following the K-12 Guidance for Schools and requirements from the Arizona Department of Health Services and Maricopa County Department of Public Health,” Airey said. “Each time there has been a change with public health, we have updated our protocols and continue to follow the requirements of public health experts.”

Attorneys Richardson and Lowell-Britt then asked that Harrier and the Governor’s Office formally withdraw their letters since Peoria Unified and Catalina Foothills Unified – “Our clients are not acting unlawfully .”

As of today, Peoria Unified has not received a response from the Governor’s Office to their attorney’s letter. Students return to classes in Peoria Unified on August 4.

Will Humble, executive director of Arizona Public Health Association, also noted that local county health departments can require quarantine for any student exposed to COVID-19 who is unvaccinated.

“Families rely on school districts to provide safe and healthy learning environments for their children.  Schools, however, are not medical experts.  We trust the guidance provided by the officials at our federal, state and local public health organizations,” said Julie Farbarik, director of alumni & community relations for Catalina Foothills Unified School District to AZEdNews.

“This system ensures that COVID-19 topics like isolation and quarantine are informed by science, and families can expect a consistent, reasonable and predictable set of health and safety rules to protect their children at school,” Farbarik said.

“In their K-12 guidance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that a layered mitigation strategy is best for keeping students safe.  Each layer plays a vital role.  When the state peels away layers, each district has fewer options for maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment for all children,” Farbarik said.

In response to the letters from the Governor’s Office, Supt. of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said these policies erode protections for students 12 years old and younger who are too young to be vaccinated yet and others who are unvaccinated.

“With the prohibition of masks and COVID-19 vaccine requirements for public schools, many students – particularly in elementary schools – have limited lines of defense against this virus. A quarantine period for exposed, unvaccinated individuals is one of the only tools left to maintain a safe in-person learning environment,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“Schools have a responsibility to ensure that our young, unvaccinated students are not needlessly exposed to COVID-19 or any other illness. I applaud public school districts and charters for following the guidance of public health officials to ensure student and staff safety this upcoming school year,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“Finally, it is beyond frustrating that Governor Ducey would choose to single out public school districts in contradiction to guidance on COVID-19 quarantine periods issued by public health experts – just days before the next academic year starts for many schools,” Supt. Hoffman said.

“I am tired of Arizona’s public schools being a leverage point for the Governor’s political conversation on COVID-19 that growingly has nothing to do with science or public health,” Supt. Hoffman said.

Arizona School Boards Association said the letters from the Governor’s office conflict with Arizona Department of Public Health, Maricopa County Public Health and Pima County Health Department and encouraged all school districts to continue following official guidance until recommendations change.

Arizona’s school districts have a fundamental obligation to protect the students entrusted to their care and provide a safe working environment for their employees, ASBA said.

“Both the Arizona Department of Health Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to recommend and strongly encourage vaccination and mask wearing in public for unvaccinated individuals. The Arizona Legislature and Governor Ducey have prohibited school districts from implementing these measures by law, and school districts are complying with those mandates,” a statement from Arizona School Boards Association reads.

“The recent attempt by Governor Ducey’s office to declare unlawful district policy that requires an unvaccinated student to quarantine after known exposure to COVID-19 is nonsensical, is in direct conflict with the guidance of his own department of health services, and places students at risk for political gain,” ASBA said.

Arizona School Boards Association continues to recommend districts follow established AZDHS guidance to have students who display COVID-like symptoms or have contact with a COVID-positive person stay home from school.  Schools are prepared to work with parents and students to ensure they do not fall behind during any period they are not at school.

“Arizona’s school districts are tired of being the battleground for a political argument over response to COVID that has nothing to do with science or public health. COVID-19 is a real, highly contagious disease spread by close contact between people,” ASBA said.

Schools are accustomed to working with and following the guidance of public health officials. Vaccines, masks, physical distancing and isolation/quarantine are the strategies they recommended to stop its spread.

“Mandatory masking and vaccines are no longer options. Schools will comply with the law, however unwise it may prove to be, continue to encourage their communities to be safe, and do what Arizona’s state and county public health officials recommend until they are informed differently by those entities,” ASBA said.

“Since the state’s political leadership has decided it knows what is best for Arizona’s students, we await clarification from AZDHS. The consequences of the governor’s decisions for the health of Arizona’s students will be his to bear,” ASBA said.

Back to school during a COVID surge series:
Part 1: School districts respond to Gov’s office criticism for following public health COVID-19 recommendations
Part 2: Students head back for first day of school as COVID cases surge
Part 3: How new laws affect online instruction
Part 4: What would it take to rescind law prohibiting school mask mandates?

Other related articles:
Daily schools update: Doctors recommend masks for students 2 years & up at school
Daily schools update: Arizona Lawmakers to Ban Mask Requirements in Schools
How COVID-19 vaccinations for ages 16 and up could affect AZ high schools
COVID-19 cases rise before Thanksgiving adding to school and hospital leaders’ concerns

How & why teachers discuss trial with students; Schools keep masks after Gov. rescinds mandate
Masks are still required in all schools; Video: Dr. Christ’s news conference today
Arizona School Safety Task Force releases final report and model school safety plan
School leaders ask people to limit activities to prevent spread of COVID-19 in schools
School nurses play a key role in COVID-19 safety plans
How benchmarks, health advice, insurance guide schools’ re-opening plans
School boards face tough decisions on when to re-open schools for in-person classes

On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement supporting in-person instruction and guidance that says everyone over two years old at schools should wear masks whether they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s most recent guidance supported in-person instruction but did not require masks for fully vaccinated students and staff.

Nine states – including Arizona – have new laws that prohibit public schools from requiring students and staff to wear masks at school.

The American Academy of Pediatrics guidance reflects recommendations in parts of the country with high levels of COVID-19 cases. Arizona is currently experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases including the highly contagious Delta variant with nearly or more than 1,000 cases reported each day for the past week.

Will Humble, executive director of Arizona Public Health Association, said since vaccines may not be approved for students under 12 years old before November that families of unvaccinated K-5 students may want to consider encouraging their students to wear masks at school.

Humble said locally elected school district governing boards should have the right to determine COVID-19 masking and quarantine policy for their staff and students they serve, “because that’s who is accountable to the parents and students and teachers in those districts. That’s where the decisions should be made and because of the bill that the Governor’s Office and Dr. Christ had no objection to they can’t make that decision. The Governor and the Legislature has made that decision for those boards, and I think that’s wrong,” during a KTAR 92.3 FM interview.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said unvaccinated students should wear face masks at school and she’s told her own children – too young to be vaccinated – to wear masks when school starts.

“Our recommendations at the department haven’t changed,” Dr. Christ said in a KTAR News 92.3 FM interview. “If you are unvaccinated, or you are at high risk for bad outcomes due to COVID, you should wear a mask whenever you are with people you don’t live with.”

“Even if you’re vaccinated and you’re going to be with people you don’t know their vaccination status, given Delta, we would recommend that you wear a mask when you are out,” Dr. Christ said.