Sahuarita Unified School District plans to survey parents and teachers this week to gauge thoughts on mask mandates.
Though they currently have a mask-optional policy, mask mandates in Arizona schools are on the national stage because of a court ruling expected soon.
An attempt by Gov. Doug Ducey to ban school districts from mandating masks has been challenged by an attorney representing educators, school board members, child welfare advocates and other entities. Ducey’s ban wouldn’t go into effect until Sept. 29, 90 days after the legislative session.
School districts now await the ruling from Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper on whether provisions in the budget reconciliation, which included the mask ban, were illegal due to a requirement that the title of a bill must reflect what’s in it and that bills can’t be made up of unrelated issues.
SUSD had a mask requirement at the end of last school year but did away with it before summer school began. It left that mask-optional policy in place as the school year began.
At Wednesday’s school board meeting, one parent said during call to the public that those parents who are against mask mandates and other COVID-related mandates are in the majority. Another parent said those who do want masks required in school are in the majority.
Board Member Nicole Werner put a motion on the table to create a survey for parents and staff on what parents think of mask mandates. Werner walked out of a meeting Aug. 25 after the board failed to enact a mask mandate.
“We are here to represent parents and teachers and I want to know what everyone’s thinking,” she said. “At the last meeting, there wasn’t a lot of input on why we shouldn’t be protecting kids with all these layers.”
Board President Kevin Opalka seconded the motion, but other board members had concerns.
Board member Shari Lowell felt the timing wasn’t right, considering it is only a couple weeks from the Sept. 29 date where the ban on mask mandates could go into effect.
“I think a survey would be great, but I don’t want to expend a lot of resources and time because there is a law we are up against,” she said.
Board member John Sparks agreed a survey and the data would be helpful so they know what their stakeholders feel, but he said it’s important that it’s a real look at those parents and staff actually involved at SUSD.
“My concern is that surveys are generally anonymous,” he said. “I care what everyone in the community says but I care most about the parents and people in our district. My concern is the survey would need to be non-anonymous and parents would be highly sensitive to put their name on an identified survey.”
He originally amended the motion to ensure only parents and staff were responding. Werner suggested parents and staff log in with their email associated with the district, but the responses themselves would remain anonymous.
Sparks ultimately pulled his amendment and voted against the survey. Lowell also voted against it, and the survey passed, 3-2.
Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said there were multiple factors at play, though he would carry out the will of the board. He said some of the uncertainties currently might resolve once a ruling is made on the state level.
“We are currently operating in a fairly consistent, stable, fairly normal day to day,” Valenzuela said. “My worry is that if we take a poll or collect this data right now and revisit or restir this issue of masks at this point, given the situation currently, we should ask ourselves what are we going to do with the data.”
On Friday, Valenzuela said they are creating a simple survey and expect to get it out to parents and teachers within a week.
“My hope with this data is it will be another source of information regarding parental feelings about this topic,” he said. “What I heard is folks on the board would like to know what folks in the community feel about this, and I didn’t hear any imminent action or consequential outcome would follow this survey; it’s just a desire for information.”
Valenzuela said if the ban on mask mandates is determined to be illegal in the courts, the board would have a discussion of what would happen next.
“It’s combined with a myriad of other issues relevant in this matter, for example the current disease number in the district is 14,” he said. ”We’re talking about the court ruling, disease numbers, the district’s ability to manage cases, perceptions of leadership and staff, in regards to enforcement.”
“The thing with this issue is it’s multi-faceted, not driven by just one indicator.”
At CESD’s meeting Monday, Superintendent Roxana Rico-Beaucage reiterated they are following all the required COVID-19 mandates, including not requiring masks.
“Based on CDC guidance, it is recommended universal masking regardless of vaccine status and we let everyone know they can wear it if they want,” she said. “We added the recommendation that fully vaccinated people who get tested three to five days after exposure don’t have to stay out the entire time.”
She also mentioned school buses.
“On Jan. 29, 2021, the CDC issued an order that face masks must be worn on public transportation,” she said. “According to the order, you must wear a mask on school buses regardless of vaccination status. We have not mandated that but it’s highly recommended.”
She said three of their nine drivers are wearing masks and about 25% of the students on buses are wearing them.
The CDC’s order requires mask use while on public transportation, including school buses. According to the order, anyone two years old or up must wear a mask on the bus, including drivers. It exempted drivers from wearing a mask only if they were the only one on the bus.
Valenzuela said masks are optional on SUSD buses, just like on campus, and they follow all the same COVID-19 mitigations of cleaning and sanitizing.
A spokesperson for the Pima County Health Department said CDC guidance for mask wearing on school buses is what should be followed.
“Specific to schools, PCHD guidance is that teachers, school administrators and staff should continue to follow CDC’s school guidance.”