DUSD reinstates mask mandate

Clint Espinola, a kindergarten teacher at Stevenson Elementary, wears a face covering while teaching his students.

DOUGLAS — The Douglas Unified School District has reinstated its face covering mandate.

The resolution, which came from the DUSD’s attorney and was approved by the Douglas School Board 5-1 at a special meeting Aug. 18 went into effect Thursday, Aug. 19. It will remain in effect until Sept. 28, the day before Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order prohibiting face coverings goes into effect.

Dr. Ed Gomez voted against the resolutions.

“Once the law kicks, in we’re going to follow the law,” Ana Samaniego, DUSD superintendent told the board.

Background information regarding the face coverings provided to the board by Samaniego states, “Throughout the pandemic, the Douglas Unified School District has remained committed to following the recommendations of national, state and local health officials to the extent possible. This included adhering to recommendations regarding masking — until our state legislature passed a law prohibiting mask mandates in Arizona school districts. We complied with that law. On Monday, Aug. 17, 2021, an Arizona Superior Court ruling established that the ‘no mask mandate’ law cannot take effect until the end of Sept. 2021 despite language in the law which stated it would be applied retroactively as of July 1, 2021.

“Given this ruling, it is my recommendation that DUSD Public Schools again require staff and students, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks while indoors on school district property and on district buses, beginning Aug. 19. Masks may continue to be optional outdoors.”

According to the superintendent, this decision is based on the following reasons:

Public health officials — the CDC, the Arizona Department of Education, the Arizona Department of Health Services, Cochise Health and Social Services and the American Association of Pediatrics — are all in agreement that adults and children should wear masks inside public schools given current pandemic conditions.

Community spread continues to rise. Cochise County is currently in high transmission with an increase in cases. It was a very different picture just a few weeks ago, and the acceleration of cases has been alarming.

Universal masking as recommended by all health officials is the top mitigation strategy for safe in-person learning.

Cases are occurring in Douglas schools.

The delta variant does not care about state law and does not care about individual beliefs. It is an opportunistic virus that is very contagious. We know the delta variant is present in Cochise County. We know that we have had multiple breakthrough cases where fully vaccinated individuals have contracted COVID-19. We know the data is now showing that fully vaccinated individuals can have COVID-19, be asymptomatic, and spread the virus to others. One week ago Cochise County had moderate spread of the virus. Today we have high spread in Cochise County.

We must take action to reduce both the number of positive cases and the number of students and staff required to quarantine if we are to ensure the continued operation of our schools in-person.

“We understand that masks are a hot topic and even a divisive issue, and I have certainly received many differing thoughts on the matter,” Samaniego told the board. “At this point, the steep increase in cases, coupled with the current and clear balance of public health guidance, instructs us that the best way to ensure we can keep students and staff in class, learning to their best ability, is to require masks so long as the law allows and/or until our community spread and cases in schools are well-managed.”

Mark Wilkinson, a longtime Douglas resident who currently has two children attending DUSD and has another that has graduated, was the only member of the community who attended the public meeting and spoke out against the proposed resolution.

“All my children are cursed with allergies as myself,” he said. “It’s hard enough for us to breathe when our allergies act up, let alone with face coverings. The delta variant is much more contagious, but a lot less lethal than the regular virus.”

Wilkinson referred to CDC stats which show 335 children all under the age of 17 have died from COVID since the start of the pandemic.

“During the same 18-month period, a total of 49,725 between the ages of 0-17 have died from other causes,” he said. “Most children that contract the virus don’t show any symptoms. If they do, they’re very mild. Out of those 335 deaths, we don’t know how many had underlying conditions because the CDC did not publish that information.”

Wilkinson said there are numerous conflicting reports that say masks should be required, while others say they are not effective. Wilkinson then referred to eyes, saying the eyes are an open window to the virus, and nobody goes around wearing goggles.

“I refuse to have my children have their oxygen rationed for the sole purpose for districts around the state to have their political theater,” he added.

Board member Mitch Lidemann pointed out that “as science develops, opinions change.”

He said he can agree with what Wilkinson is saying, but “what do we do for the mean time is for the best, and I think that’s our task tonight. What’s going to be the best for everyone involved? Even one person getting sick and going to the hospital is too many.”

Samaniego said she has many parents encouraging her to enforce the mask mandate, claiming DUSD is not doing enough to protect students, while others are threatening to withdraw their children from school if they enforce the mandate.

“We’re in a position where we have to not only provide education for our kids, but also a safe environment right now, which is tough,” she aded. “What is that safe environment? We have an obligation to protect all children, and right now that is through Sept. 28.”

After the resolution was passed, Wilkinson said he was frustrated by the board’s decision.

“I have two that attend school here, one is a pre-K student and my daughter is a senior,” he said. “My daughter is old enough (that) she can decide for herself what she wants to do. She is 17 years old. For my 4-year-old, how effective is that going to be? He is constantly touching his face, messing with the mask. All of the preschoolers are not going to be able to wear the mask effectively. Probably most of the people in elementary won’t be able to. I’d rather send him without a mask. He’s going to get more germs with a mask on.”