(Image Source: Reuters)
This autumn, students nationwide geared up to return to safe, moderated, in-person classes after over a year of online instruction. Meanwhile, my classmates and I—students at a high school in Chandler Unified School District—prepared to return to a concerningly unregulated school environment.
In October 2020, when my school district fully reopened its doors, the country’s eyes were on us. At the time, masks were mandated, mandatory quarantines were planned, and social distancing policies were implemented to ensure the safety of students and staff.
I was frightened by the prospect of returning to my huge school when cases in my area were only rising. Granted, I was eager to return to a more engaging form of school, though ultimately more nervous as I’d be placing the health of myself and my family at risk.
The following school year was nowhere near perfect but, thankfully, nothing egregious occurred. Cases within our county and school slowly began to decrease. As we headed into summer break, things were looking up.
Then, in the midst of summer, a seemingly normal state budget was passed by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. The legislation, however, sneakily included provisions that restricted the rights of school districts and governing boards to require students to wear masks on campuses or get vaccinated to attend in-person classes.
Thus, as this school year began, almost no restrictions were created to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 within Arizona schools. As the provisions of the bill had not yet taken effect, all districts across the state could legally defy the ban on mandates. My district did not. Instead, it merely “strongly recommends” students and staff to wear face coverings and is currently “observing”—rather than enforcing—three feet social distancing policies. At first, the district provided students with the simple “option to quarantine” if exposed to the virus (our country’s Department of Public Health has since mandated these quarantines).
In late September, the infamous education provisions of the budget were ruled unconstitutional. A Maricopa County judge held that, under its title, the bill was supposed to address state finances—not Covid-19 policies in schools. Therefore, before they even took effect, the ban on mask and vaccine mandates was voided. Districts within the state can no longer claim that they are avoiding implementing stricter policies in order to prevent legal challenges. All school districts now have the ability to enact mask requirements, vaccine requirements, and social distancing policies. Mine, however, still has not.
Here in Arizona, about 53 percent of our population is vaccinated. The lack of strong, anti-Covid policies within Arizona’s school districts has the ability to cause immense harm to students, staff, and their families. Recently, thousands of cases and at least a dozen deaths per day have been recorded within Arizona. The pandemic is by no means over.
My district claims that it prioritizes the health and safety of its students and staff. However, it refuses to establish mask or vaccine mandates even when doing so is perfectly legal. Without these measures, students and staff, myself included, feel unsafe simply heading to class or to work. These proposed policies would protect the well-being of thousands of Arizonans.
The positive effects of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated are clear and unarguable. Wearing a mask allows one to protect themselves, and those around them. Getting the Covid-19 vaccine significantly reduces both one’s chances of being infected with the virus, and the symptoms of the virus if one is infected.
Until more Arizonans are vaccinated, schools should mandate mask-wearing and enforce 3-foot social distancing policies. Furthermore, they must educate parents, students, and staff on the importance of vaccination. It is the responsibility of all institutions to continue to encourage the public to get vaccinated.
Nowhere in the world should a child feel scared while pursuing their education. It is essential that my school district—and thousands more across the country—take action against the pandemic that continues to affect every aspect of our lives.