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State leaders battle over masks leaving schools in limbo

Posted at 9:45 PM, Aug 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-10 00:45:49-04

A debate between safety and liberty is how one Valley lawyer is describing the infighting between the governor and schools over wearing masks.

Governor Doug Ducey's stance on school districts implementing mask mandates is unwavering, as he doubled down during a press event this month.

"We’ve made it clear there are no mask mandates in the state of Arizona," said Governor Ducey. Over the summer, he signed HB 2898 into law, which, in part, prohibited schools from forcing a mask mandate onto students. The bill goes into effect on September 29.

Nine school districts have implemented mask mandates since the beginning of the school year. Friday, Madison School district became the latest district to make such a move, sending an email to parents that masks will be mandatory on school grounds until September 29, when mask-wearing will become optional.

"We should all be on the same side. We should all be on the same team and protecting our community," said Kathy Hoffman, Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Hoffman is against the governor's decision to ban a mask mandate. "I would say there’s a lot of frustration right now and concern that families are excited back to school in person but then they’re worried about their kids getting sick."

On Friday, J.O. Combs School District announced that all 5th and 6th-grade classes at Ellsworth Elementary School will be sent home for virtual learning next week, at least through Friday, August 13, due to an outbreak of more than 50 cases at the school. District-wide, there are more than 100 cases.

"We're talking about wave 3, what did we learn from waves 1 and 2?" asks Wendy Smith-Reeve, former Director of Emergency Management for the State of Arizona. "We need public health back in the driver’s seat, and not in the back of the bus."

Nine school districts are taking advantage of the next two months until the law goes into effect: Phoenix Union, Phoenix Elementary, Osborn Schools, Roosevelt District, Tucson Unified, Washington Elementary, Creighton Schools, Alhambra Elementary District, Madison District.

If schools continue to implement mask mandates beyond September 29, districts could find themselves in a court battle with the governor, in which one Valley lawyer said the law and the executive order will most likely stand up. However, the teacher's unions could have a wildcard play.

"You could see teachers or teacher’s unions saying that it’s not safe for them to go to school unless everyone’s wearing masks," said constitutional lawyer Kory Langhofer. "They can say it’s not safe for them to go to school."

ABC15 reached out to the Governor's Office and the Arizona Department of Public Health, but both were unavailable for comment.