Public health versus politics has hit home at Peoria Unified School District, with state legislators and the governor issuing rules at odds with federal, state and county COVID-19 guidelines.
Experts say the conflict distracts from the more important issue of educating students.
During the past month, the state, through the approved budget, banned public schools and universities from enforcing mask mandates and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated students.
Additionally, the governor’s office has stated Peoria Unified is breaking the law by having a policy that requires quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 but exempting vaccinated students, going as far as calling the policy discriminatory.
Mark Joraanstad, executive director of Arizona School Administrators, said quarantining is a guideline supported by public health agencies and that such conflicting directives distract leaders from their student-centered focus and distracts educators from providing a safe, organized and positive opening of the school year.
He said those moves can also erode trust in the school community as districts have worked through the pandemic to continue offering educational opportunities to students.
Arizona School Administrators is a nonprofit organization of 1,450 public school administrators throughout the state, including virtually every school district and some public charter schools.
Joraanstad said PUSD has adapted and changed throughout the pandemic staying in compliance with state and county health directives.
“I must say, PUSD has been a leader in Arizona in maintaining in-person instruction last year. That accomplishment happened because they employed the state and county health department mitigation strategies so effectively,” Joraanstad said.
“School districts and their staffs have faced a tremendous burden for the last 18 months as they have pivoted to maintain the education of their students. They are the education experts, not health experts, so they rely on national, state and county health experts to provide guidance. This guidance supports making the best possible decisions about starting school safely.”
On July 14, Gov. Doug Ducey’s education policy adviser Kaitlin Herrier sent a letter to PUSD Superintendent Jason Reynolds stating the district is breaking the law by having a policy that requires quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 but exempting vaccinated students.
State and county heath departments have not changed quarantine guidelines since the governor’s adviser sent the letter, however Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ has said schools should be able to quarantine unvaccinated students and keep them out of class in at least some cases where they have been exposed to COVID-19.
“Isolation and quarantine does remain a tool that’s available to local public health (agencies) when they are working with school districts,” Christ said.
Other education and health agencies have come out in support of PUSD and other schools following health guidelines.
Arizona School Boards Association stated 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 as well as encourage students who display COVID-like symptoms or have contact with a COVID-positive person to stay home from school.
Over the last year, Maricopa County Department of Public Health has declared a number of PUSD schools as outbreaks due to COVID-19 exposure, consequently causing students to quarantine to stop the virus from spreading.
“The recent attempt by Gov. 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,” according to a statement from ASBA.
Chris Thomas, ASBA general counsel and associate executive director, said it is important to note the premise of the governor’s allegation is technically and procedurally unfounded. Herrier’s letter does not carry any legal weight at all, he said.
“Public health guidance does not come out that way. It would have to come out of Arizona Department of Health Services or the issuance of an executive order. At least it would be procedurally correct. This is just a letter,” he said.
Thomas added that announcing conflicting initiatives creates confusion and takes time away from other important issues.
“The governor is the governor. Nobody is doubting his authority as our state’s top executive. When the governor says something, people give it weight. Then we get calls from the districts, asking what does it mean? Having to clear up the weight of what this means is not easy,” Thomas said.
Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman also weighed in on the quarantine policy in support of PUSD, stating a quarantine period for exposed, unvaccinated individuals is one of the only tools left to maintain a safe in-person learning environment.
“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,” she said. “Finally, it is beyond frustrating that Gov. 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. I am tired of Arizona’s 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.”
In a statement sent to Independent Newsmedia, Ducey spokesman CJ Karamargin said the governor and the Arizona Legislature addressed this issue by passing HB 2898 on June 30. The language in this legislation is specific to schools and it is not the same as general public health guidelines, he said.
“We expect Arizona’s public schools to comply with state law and we’re not going to allow anyone to deny Arizona kids an education,” he said. “[The law] takes into account that school is the safest place for kids, whether they are vaccinated or not, and that they have a right to receive in-person education.”
HB 2898 prohibits school districts from requiring the use of face masks. At the same time, public health agencies continue to recognize mask wearing as an important tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
As part of the district’s mitigation procedures, PUSD has made mask wearing optional for the start of the new year, essentially leaving it up to individual families.
PUSD spokeswoman Danielle Airey said the district will continue to comply with CDC, county and state health departments. PUSD is hoping to return to as normal as possible this year while still maintaining the safety of all who enter district buildings, she said.
“As one of only a few school districts that was open since September of 2020, we know we have many tools available to keep our schools safe and we will continue to follow the spread in our community to determine if we need to increase any of our measures in order to continue to stay open,” she said. “We have many students, staff and guests that may be more comfortable wearing [masks] and we want them to know they can continue to do so. We will also make PPE available to anyone who requests it.”
Arizona Department of Health Services reported 1,174 new coronavirus cases and 10 new deaths, July 22, for a total of 912,653 cases and 18,137 deaths. In the Peoria area, cases are at 28,052 compared with 27,683 a week previous, a difference of 369, according to Arizona Department of Health Services.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, PUSD teachers and staff have provided virtual instruction for families who choose it and have worked with parents and students to ensure they do not fall behind during any period they are not at school.
“I want to be clear, we all understand the best scenario is for children to be in school and learning in person, but we have to navigate these waters and the next phase of COVID, and that is what we are trying to do within the framework the legislature has given us,” Thomas said.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.