School Mask Debate Tests Arizona’s Governor, a Pandemic Pincushion

PHOENIX — Only weeks after Arizona’s students went back to school, coronavirus infections are forcing thousands of children and teachers into quarantine. School outbreaks around Phoenix are surging. In one suburban district, so many drivers are sick that school buses are running 90 minutes late.

All this in a state that ignored C.D.C. recommendations and banned school mask mandates weeks before classes resumed.

Now the back-to-school turmoil has cascaded far beyond Arizona’s classrooms, igniting a political uproar for Gov. Doug Ducey and other Republican leaders in this fast-changing desert battleground. The tumult underscores the perilous decisions facing governors in swing states where voters are divided over Covid-19 safety measures and personal freedoms.

Mr. Ducey, a business-minded Republican, spent much of the past year getting attacked by conservatives angry about pandemic restrictions and his defense of the 2020 election results. But he has since doubled down on anti-mask-mandate measures passed by Arizona’s Republican-run Legislature.

He pledged to withhold millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief from schools that pass mask mandates in defiance of a state law that takes effect at the end of September. He offered $7,000 vouchers to families that opt to leave districts that require face coverings. Masking decisions, he said, belonged to parents, not school officials.

“In Arizona we are pro-parent,” Mr. Ducey said at a recent news conference. “I want parents to do what they think is the right thing to do.”

On the ground, schools say they are facing a no-win choice.

In the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, the school board called an emergency meeting in August to decide whether students and staff should be required to wear masks. School officials said violating state law could prevent the district from receiving $11 million to hire staff and help students catch up after so much lost school time.

The mask mandate failed, three votes to two.

Disheartened Chandler parents who supported the requirements said the board had put money above their children’s health.

“They’re not protecting our kids,” said Sandy Kirby, a Chandler parent and nurse.

But Kelli Wilson, a devoted Trump voter in Chandler whose 13-year-old son is unvaccinated and does not wear a mask to school, was gratified. Ms. Wilson, who had soured on Mr. Ducey when the gym she runs was forced to close down early in the pandemic, credited the governor with letting parents decide about masks.

“Finally Doug Ducey’s doing something right,” she said.

Mr. Ducey had kept a lower profile throughout much of the pandemic compared with the Republican governors of Florida, South Dakota and Texas, who built national reputations as combative opponents of Covid restrictions.

But as he looks to his political future after he leaves office next year because of term limits, Mr. Ducey is moving to the front of the volatile new battle over personal freedoms, children’s health and the politicization of pandemic relief money.

Education groups have sued to overturn the mask-mandate ban, and more than a dozen school districts across Arizona have passed mask mandates despite the ban. The Biden administration warned governors like Mr. Ducey and Ron DeSantis of Florida not to block federal money from pro-masking schools.

The conflict is unfolding in a onetime Republican stronghold now torn in opposite directions, pulled to the left by growing numbers of young, college-educated voters and moderates in the booming Phoenix suburbs, and to the right by vocal Trump loyalists.

With virus hospitalizations climbing to about 2,000 people from about 520 in early July, many parents, teachers’ unions and public health officials said Mr. Ducey’s actions punished schools that were following scientific advice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for all students, staff and visitors inside schools.

“It puts people’s lives at risk,” said Jann-Michael Greenburg, president of the Scottsdale Unified School District, which has faced threats since passing a temporary mask mandate. “I wonder if we would have won the battle against polio if this is how our governments behaved.”

Mr. Ducey, a vocal supporter of vaccinations, has been battered from several sides throughout the pandemic. Democrats criticized him for not imposing a statewide mask mandate and loosening restrictions prematurely.

Many of the loudest attacks, however, have come from the right wing of Arizona’s splintered Republican Party. In January, the state party censured him for taking emergency actions such as closing gyms and bars at the outset of the pandemic.

Mr. Ducey has also endured months of attacks from his Republican base in the wake of the 2020 election. Mr. Ducey had campaigned for President Donald J. Trump but declined to embrace Mr. Trump’s false claims about a rigged election. He certified President Biden’s 10,500-vote victory in Arizona but has kept largely quiet as a polarizing audit of the votes ordered by state Republican leaders drags on.

Some political observers saw Mr. Ducey’s moves against mask mandates as an effort to patch a rift with conservatives.

Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

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