Health vs Education

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office of education demanded a change in Peoria Unified School District’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies for the upcoming school year, stating it was unlawful.

The district is pushing back, claiming its plans are in accordance with county and state law, as well as the recommendations from the Arizona Department of Health Services.

Lawmakers passed a bill on June 30 that states, “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.” Ducey signed off on the law, and it went into effect July 1.

PUSD sent out its back-to-school plan to parents June 30. Their policy did not require masks or vaccinations for any students or staff. The issue came from their quarantine policy, in which any unvaccinated person who had exposure to COVID-19 would undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine. The governor’s office of education took this quarantine policy as discrimination toward unvaccinated students, which, per the new law, would be illegal.

Education policy adviser Kaitlin Harrier wrote a letter to PUSD and Catalina Foothills School District, which had a similar quarantine policy, on July 14 and subsequently tweeted it on the official Twitter account for the governor’s office. The letter stated “the policy contained in this document does not comply with the law,” in reference to the back-to-school policies, and warned, “This policy must be rescinded immediately.”

A PUSD statement said it received the letter and would further clarify with the governor’s office, as its policy followed the requirements of the Arizona Department of Health Services’ guidance on quarantining. 

“We responded to (the letter) to let the governor know that we would be interested in having further clarification and working with him and his team, if there are modifications that need to be made to our policy,” said Danielle Airey, chief communications officer for Peoria Unified School District. 

“But, our current practices and procedures are in alignment with the law, and we are currently following all the procedures as outlined by the law and state and county public health offices.”

One day after the letters were publicly shared on Twitter, the Arizona School Board Association released a statement in support of Peoria Unified and Catalina Foothills school districts and called Ducey’s claims “nonsensical” and “in direct conflict with the guidance of his own department of health services.”

PUSD also released a statement on July 15 from DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy, attorneys at law, who said they “respectfully disagree” with claims that the schools’ policies are unlawful, as nothing in the legislation restricts quarantining practices. The attorneys asked the office to formally withdraw the letters.

However, CJ Karamargin, the governor’s offices’ communications director, again stated the policy was unlawful by singling out unvaccinated students to be quarantined.

“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,” Karamargin said. 

“The language in this (new) legislation is specific to schools, and it’s not the same as general public health guidelines. It 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. Quarantine is a mitigation strategy. This law prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status. The use of any mitigation strategy should comply with the law.”

Airey said an important detail is that any students subject to quarantine would be able to receive online learning, similar to what was done for the last year, and that while in-person learning is preferred, students would not be denied education.

Arizona Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ said possible side effects of having unmasked, unvaccinated and nonquarantined kids in the classroom could have more serious consequences than one might think.

“As we look at increased transmission of COVID-19, one of our fears is that viruses mutate. That’s what they do,” Christ said.

“Sometimes those mutations give them an advantage and make them easier to transmit and give them some kind of advantage that makes them better. So, that’s always our fear. We want to make sure that the vaccines remain highly effective and safe and that they’re working against COVID-19.”

Arizona already has vaccines that are required for children to attend school, such as MMR, HepB, Polio and Varicella. Christ mentioned there is a current legislation trying to get the COVID-19 vaccine added to the list of required vaccines for schools. However, even with the required vaccines, parents can opt out for philosophical, religious or medical reasons. Christ also noted that while encouraged, vaccinations like flu shots are not required.

Christ also said no one’s goal is to keep kids out of school or deny them their education, but safety should still be a concern.

“From a public health perspective, the best place kids can be is in the classroom, for a large number of reasons. In addition to education, schools provide a lot of services and support for children,” Christ said.

“We want kids back in the classroom. So, we are going to work with families, parents and schools to try to make sure kids stay in the classroom to get that in-person learning experience if that’s what the families want.”

PUSD has 42 public schools, with 34 of them being pre-K through eighth grade schools. The vaccine is still unavailable for anyone under 12 years old, meaning that about 85% of students at these schools would not be able to be vaccinated even if they wanted to. 

Christ said it was initially said the vaccine would become available for children under 12 by early fall, but that has now been pushed back to mid-winter.

The Arizona Medical Association, Arizona Department of Health Services and CDC all strongly recommend getting vaccinated as soon as possible. For school, they recommend nonvaccinated individuals continuing to wear masks, keeping at least 3 feet of distance between students, enforcing a 10-day quarantine upon exposure for nonvaccinated students, as well as continuing increased health practices such as frequent hand washing, sanitization, screening and testing.

“These vaccines have gone through the same rigorous clinical trials that all vaccines that are approved have gone through,” Christ said. “They have been administered to hundreds of millions of people with very few side effects and very rare adverse effects. Your likelihood of having a bad outcome from COVID-19 is much greater than having an adverse reaction to a vaccine. They’re highly effective, they’re free, and they are very easy to find in the community now. We recommend everybody go get fully vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

As of July 26, PUSD has not received clarification or further instruction from the governor’s office of education and is left with Karamargin’s ominous warning about what will happen if they do not comply: “We’ll see.”