Face Mask

Amid a surge in a new COVID-19 variant, Kyrene and Tempe Union school districts so far plan to take opposite approaches on mandatory masks on campuses.

With both districts now on a two-week winter break, Kyrene on Dec. 15 reiterated its plan for an optional masks policy for all students except preschoolers – who will be required to wear face coverings – while Tempe Union two days later announced its mask mandate will remain in effect when classes resume Jan. 3.

Masks will still be required for all students using school buses in both districts because they are under a federal mandate.

“As we first shared with you in November, the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccination for children ages five and older marks a significant milestone in the fight against the pandemic. It provides an off ramp for some of Kyrene’s most restrictive safety protocols, including face covering requirements,” Kyrene Superintendent Laura Toenjes wrote in a letter to parents and the general community.

“Just as we waited to reopen schools until all teachers and staff had an opportunity to be vaccinated, we have waited for this opportunity for our students before reviewing current protocols.”

Toenjes also encouraged parents

to monitor the district’s website throughout the winter break for “any significant updates.”

Officials during the Dec. 14 Kyrene Governing Board meeting also stressed that the district recommends students wear a mask, especially if they are not vaccinated. 

Tempe Union cited three main reasons for keeping its mask mandate in place, noting the latest county health department data showed 236 virus cases

per 100,000 and an 11.4 percent positivity rate among new test results and stating only 37 percent of all students are fully vaccinated.

The district’s third reason involved social distancing and a desire to minimize campus disruptions.

“If indoor masking is removed at this time, the distance is increased to six feet which would result in more students being required to isolate/quarantine and stay home when exposed, as contact tracing is conducted,” it said. “Our priority is to maintain a continuity of programming for all instruction and activities.”

Kyrene’s return to a voluntary mask policy did not sit well with some people who addressed or wrote to the board during the public comment portion while others applauded it – reflecting the debate that has been played out in comment periods in almost every board meeting since summer. 

Dawn Penich-Thacker, one of the leaders of the Save Our Schools nonprofit, scolded board members for opting for a voluntary mask policy, stating a mask requirement “is recommended by every legitimate doctor and scientist as well as the CDC, as well as the Maricopa County Department of Health. 

“That is within your control,” she continued. “Even distancing isn’t within your control because you can’t build us new buildings on our campuses. But you can make sure that every kiddo, everyone in these buildings is wearing that mask which is proven to keep us safer.”

On the other hand, a parent urged the district to keep masks optional, stating “with masks, it doesn’t allow your brain oxygen” and that “if you deprive them of oxygen, you’re just dumbing them down.”

A fourth grader also spoke, urging a mandatory mask policy because “I don’t feel comfortable with people in my class that are not vaccinated and will not get vaccinated.

Adding “I probably won’t be affected that much” if she got infected, she said, “Other people could get it because I could spread it to them.”

Later in the meeting, Toenjes reiterated that the district’s safety and virus-mitigation strategies “continue to be based on evolving public guidance, current federal and state laws and orders and Kyrene’s direct experience delivering education and safe environments throughout this pandemic.”

Damien Nichols, Kyrene’s director of emergency management and technology, said the district’s plan once school resumes is more streamlined and replaces a “mitigation level” plan that called for certain strategies to take effect when virus levels had reached various thresholds.

“It’s important to understand that Kyrene will continue to implement layered safety measures that include, but are not limited to, our HEPA filtration and washing, physical distancing, testing among and many other strategies,” Nichols said. “This is in addition to the expectation that many of our students and staff will opt to vaccinate and continue masking.”

That the debate over masks and the uncertain trajectory of the virus concerned board members was reflected in a remark by Governing Board President Kevin Walsh, who said he and his colleagues are “getting a lot of email.”

“I think every one of us here recognizes the trepidation that we all feel about making this decision,” Walsh said. 

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