The Tucson Unified School District board voted 4-0 to require everyone wear a mask on TUSD property at an emergency meeting Wednesday morning.
Before school begins tomorrow, the board decided to implement masking for all on TUSD campuses, motivated by the outbreaks seen in the Vail School District and with the growing number of pediatric cases.
Since the Vail School District began school on July 19, officials have reported 25 positive COVID-19 cases from students and staff as of July 25. On Monday, the district reported 57 student cases and 12 staff cases as of August 1. The Tucson Unified School District is almost four times the size of the Vail School District.
Last week, Pima County Health Department Director Dr. Theresa Cullen said they received reports of 56 cases since July 19 and eight outbreaks at schools.
For weeks, health experts warned of the expected outbreaks and high transmission in schools, especially with the inability of school districts to implement masking, since state law passed in June prohibits districts from mandating masks.
Dr. Joe Gerald, epidemiologist with the UA Zuckerman School of Public Health, who has been tracking the virus since March 2020, alerted the public to the impending outbreaks in his weekly forecast.
“Unlike the summer of 2020 when we were headed into school re-opening with generally declining rates, the match has been lit and the kindling is aflame this time,” wrote Gerald in an email. “For good measure, we are going to throw on some wet wood (children) in the coming weeks to ensure a robust bonfire for the Labor Day Marshmallow Roast. In the absence of greater vaccination or mask mandates, it is difficult to be optimistic about what might happen when schools are running at full capacity.”
The warning came along with the exponential rise in COVID-19 cases and the prevalence of the Delta variant, which is highly transmissible. Arizona has a high rate of transmission with a current rate of 175 cases per 100,000 individuals for the seven day rolling average, while Pima County has about half the rate of transmission.
Given new evidence on the Delta variant suggesting high transmissibility even among vaccinated individuals, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention updated their mask guidance, recommending all individuals regardless of vaccination wear masks in public in-door space in areas of high or substantial transmission.
According to Gerald, rates are about three times higher among those 15 to 24 years of age compared to those 65 and older, but transmission is increasing among all age groups.
Last Wednesday, Cullen said pediatricians are seeing increased admissions and increased severity of illness, including ICU admission.
At a press briefing on Tuesday, Banner Health’s Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Marjorie Bessel said pediatric patients account for 5% of all COVID hospital admissions. Since July 1, Bessel reported COVID hospitalizations have increased by 95% and ventilator usage has increased by 300%.
TUSD board member Adelita Grijalva said she was considering not only the outbreaks and increase in cases in schools within Pima County but also about the 30% of the TUSD population ineligible to get vaccinated because they are too young. Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is the only vaccine approved for those 12 to 17, with no vaccine approved for those younger than 12.
Tucson Unified School District is the only school in Pima County that has decided to outrightly oppose the actions of the state Legislature and the Gov. Doug Ducey.
“Unfortunately, Gov. Ducey is wanting to eliminate local control,” said Grijalva. “The irony is it’s actually going to close more schools.”
Despite the decision, Grijalva said they have not discussed challenging the K-12 reconciliation bill, which prohibits districts from requiring masks, in court. Aside from requiring masks, TUSD will not be welcoming any visitors or volunteers.
TUSD joins The Phoenix Union High School District, who announced last Friday they would enforce their existing mask requirement district-wide. Most schools in Pima County will begin school this week without mask requirements.
Marana Unified School District is not planning to mandate masks, but will recommend unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals wear face covering when indoors, said Director of Public Relations Alli Benjamin.
Tucson family physician Dr. Cadey Harrel called on Ducey and the state legislature to overturn their decision and “do the right thing for our children, schools, and community by permitting schools to take necessary and proven measures, like simple mask wearing, to keep them safe.”
“Physicians spoke out against this dangerous law when it passed, since many students are not old enough to be vaccinated yet, and with the delta variant spreading like wildfire, it’s even more critical for schools to be able to protect their students, educators, and staff,” said Harrel. “As a physician and mother, I want children to resume in-person learning safely, but frankly I’m scared about the suffering and death this year will bring.”