Arizona school boards will have few options once classes resume should a COVID-19 outbreak occur on campus, thanks to orders from the legislature and the governor that fly in the face of the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control.
The twin orders complicate the near-universal desire to resume in-person classes safely, after a disrupted year that has caused many students to lose months of academic progress.
First, the Arizona legislature adopted a law that says “a school district or charter school 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.”
That conflicts with the latest advice from the CDC that unvaccinated students and teachers should wear masks indoors.
The Peoria Unified and Catalina Foothills school districts recently adopted a policy, stating that unvaccinated student exposed to COVID-19 should quarantine at home for 10 days. Unvaccinated students need not quarantine if they’re exposed, since the current vaccines are 95% effective against the original strain and 85% effective against even the fast-spreading Delta strain, according to multiple recent studies.
The policy corresponds to the federal CDC’s advice.
That’s exactly what most school districts did last year when they did offer in-person classes — before vaccines were approved for children aged 12-16. It also accords with the Arizona Department of Health Services suggestion that any unvaccinated person exposed to someone with an active infection quarantine for 14 days.
However, Gov. Doug Ducey’s education police adviser Kaitlin Harrier last week declared that policy illegal due to the just-adopted change in state law. She ordered the district to drop that requirement.
“All Arizona children are entitled to public education and adding on these qualifiers and keeping kids out of their classrooms for 10 days at a time contrary to the law is not in anyone’s best interest,” Harrier wrote.
As it happens, US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week held a roundtable discussion with students and educators at the Tohono O’odham Community College.
He urged schools all to shift to in-person classes, but to follow public health guidelines – like requiring unvaccinated students to wear masks indoors on campus.
“I would encourage all schools to be open for students full-time, five days a week, in the beginning of this upcoming school year, while considering how they can be innovative with blended learning approaches,” Cardona said, according to a report in the Arizona Republic. “But I do think after this long year students should be learning. We want to make sure our educators are being supported in making the right decisions or using the mitigation strategies that the health officials in their local jurisdiction believe are what should be followed.”
Decisions that go against the mitigation strategies are “working against the goal of safely returning students daily,” he said.
The twin rulings leave school boards with an impossible choice between following state and federal guidelines to contain outbreaks and following the new law as interpreted by the governor’s office.
Studies suggest that schools can spawn clusters of cases, especially when it involves the faster-spreading Delta virus. The new strain appears more likely to infect children, but probably not more likely to cause fatal disease. Evidence shows COVID-19 can kill children — but adults suffer a much higher risk of death. Doctors have found that serious symptoms can linger for months, even if the children suffered only very mild side effects during the initial infection.
The effort to quarantine children who tested positive or were exposed to a positive case proved disruptive last fall in some districts. The Payson school district closed two campus for extended periods after a cluster of cases exposed dozens of children — and many unvaccinated teachers. The district couldn’t find enough substitute teachers to keep the high school and middle school campuses open after a large number of teachers quarantined.
However, under the current CDC recommendations — only the unvaccinated teachers would have to quarantine.
Payson Schools Superintendent Linda Gibson has said the district hasn’t gotten guidance from the state or the county health department about rules for reopening in early August, but that the district won’t have a mask mandate.
New COVID-19 cases in Arizona have increased more than 79% in the past two weeks, with only 44% of the population fully vaccinated. It’s unclear how many students aged 12 to 18 have been vaccinated, with the numbers not regularly updated on the Arizona Department of Health Services website. The most recent figures show 15% of those under 20 statewide have been vaccinated but only 5.6% of those in Gila County, 15% in Navajo County and 20% in Apache County.
Health officials say vaccinated teens and adults face a very low risk of infection, even if exposed to the virus. Even if a “breakthrough” infection occurs, the vaccine greatly reduces the severity of the disease.
However, due to the state rules schools now have no way to identify unvaccinated students, ask them to say home if they develop an infection, ask other exposed children to stay home or require any students or teachers to wear masks on campus.
The federal Food and Drug Administration is currently considering requests from Moderna and Pfizer to lift the “emergency” use designation and extend regular approval for their shots. The vaccines have proven safe and highly effective after having been administered to hundreds of millions of people.
Full approval of the vaccine would make it easier for employers to require the shot — including the military. However, the vaccine for teenagers has been much more recently approved and may not be covered in the initial change in regulations.
So there’s little immediate prospect that schools can require the vaccine in the same way they now require shots for things like measles, whooping cough, polio and other diseases.
Health officials say the best way to protect children and avoid campus clusters is for parents to get the shots, which are widely available and free.