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Arizona School Districts Head To Court Over Mask Mandate Bans

NOEL KING, HOST:

Arizona, like at least five other Republican-led states, has a law that bans public schools from requiring masks. But around a dozen Arizona school districts decided they will break a law that contradicts science. They're telling students and staff to mask up.

From member station KJZZ, here's Rocio Hernandez.

ROCIO HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's ban on school mask mandates is popular with parents like Jeremy Wilson (ph), who spoke up at a school board meeting recently in Chandler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEREMY WILSON: If the parent wants their kid to wear a mask, then they have that right. But it's my right to make that decision for my child.

HERNANDEZ: But at least 10 school districts are defying the governor and requiring masks anyway.

Chad Gaston is the superintendent at Phoenix Union High School District, which has nearly 30,000 students.

CHAD GASTON: We have no choice but to enforce what medical experts tell us is the way to keep our campuses safe. What legal implications this may have, that's not my responsibility. My responsibility is to educate our kids and keep our community safe.

MARIA TSINNIJINNIE: Thank God (laughter).

HERNANDEZ: Maria Tsinnijinnie's 17-year-old daughter enrolled in Phoenix Union before classes started August 2. She says she's glad they did.

TSINNIJINNIE: If you were to give me the choice of, do I send my kid to school in a mask or have her stay home and quarantine every time she's exposed? I think that's the choice that we make with not wearing masks.

HERNANDEZ: Tsinnijinnie says the pandemic has been hard on her daughter because she had to give up ballet classes last year due to the pandemic.

TSINNIJINNIE: It was hard to watch her go through the grief of losing ballet. And then we just kind of ultimately made the decision that now she kind of wanted to just be a regular kid and go to regular school and have regular kid experiences.

HERNANDEZ: Her daughter, Liliana Dulaney, doesn't mind wearing a mask at school.

LILIANA DULANEY: It's so weird. I can't even imagine a world without masks now.

HERNANDEZ: She says, recently a friend who had flu-like symptoms didn't get tested but did take one day off of school.

DULANEY: He did come back today. And he was like, yeah, I don't have body aches anymore. And I was like, ah. Like, I'm so glad we're wearing masks.

HERNANDEZ: Mars Haffey is an eighth grader in the Chandler Unified School District, which is not requiring masks. She says, at her school, some teachers wear masks.

MARS HAFFEY: I'd say it's around a little less than half of students that wear masks.

HERNANDEZ: And her 7-year-old sister, Addie, says at her elementary school...

ADDIE HAFFEY: Some wear masks, and some don't.

STORMY HAFFEY: Honesty, it's very concerning.

HERNANDEZ: Stormy Harvey is Mars and Addie's mom and also a teacher in the district, which has about 49,000 students. They say they've seen more people mask up since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended masks for all in K-12 schools. But Stormy is concerned about what'll happen later in the school year.

S HAFFEY: We don't want to bring it home to my husband, who is a Type 1 diabetic, or my mom, who battled COVID last year and - both my parents did. And they barely survived.

HERNANDEZ: Haffey blames the governor and the Arizona legislature for tying schools' hands. COVID-19 outbreaks have already led to closures of classes in rural and metro areas of the state. The Chandler District has about 200 active COVID cases. And the Phoenix Union's mask requirement is already being challenged by a biology teacher in the district. Oral arguments are today. And the outcome of the case could affect mask policies across the state.

For NPR News, I'm Rocio Hernandez in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDLESS DIVE'S "ATOMS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 13, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous web version of this report incorrectly said at least eight districts were defying Arizona's ban on masks in schools. In fact, at least 10 are doing so.

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