The federal government has warned Arizona its ban on school board mask mandates violates the fine print in state grants it has received.
The warning suggests the federal government could demand repayment of tens of millions of dollars of the state’s COVID relief money. It follows a Maricopa Superior Court ruling that the legislature violated the Arizona Constitution by stuffing the ban on mask mandates and other measures into an unrelated budget bill, without the normal hearing process. The state Supreme Court refused to lift the lower court’s injunction, preventing the law from taking effect last week, but may still review the decision.
The rapid fire developments could return to local school boards’ responsibility for deciding on mask mandates and other protective measures.
Gov. Doug Ducey has vowed to continue his plan to withhold funding from districts that require students to wear masks. He also wants to give students a $7,000 voucher drop out of a school with a mask mandate.
Arizona has received some $2 billion in federal funding to cope with the pandemic. Ducey’s plan involved withholding $1,800 per student from districts with mask mandates — although many of those districts have already gotten their funding directly, especially if they have a lot of low-income students. The plan could involve close to $200 million in federal funds.
However, the U.S. Treasury Department warned the plan would “undermine evidence-based efforts” to contain the pandemic and was not a “permissible use” of the money.
On Twitter, Ducey replied, “here in Arizona, we trust families to make decisions that are best for their children. It’s clear that President Biden doesn’t feel the same. He’s focused on taking power away from American families by issuing restrictive and dictatorial mandates for his own political gain.”
Payson schools imposed a mask mandate when required by the state early in the pandemic, but have not challenged the ban on mask mandates this semester. Many other districts statewide have ignored the governor’s order and required students to wear masks.
The Payson school board bowed to a Gila County Health Department requirement that students who have close contact with someone who tests positive must quarantine for 10 days — unless they’ve been vaccinated. In that case, they can skip the quarantine. The state law the Treasury Department is now challenging, threatened to penalize any district that had policies that treated vaccinated and unvaccinated students differently.
The conflict over how to reduce risk in schools comes in the face of a succession of new studies on how to protect kids in schools, including the impact of vaccinations, masks, air filtering — as well as fresh doubts about the effectiveness of things like social distancing and frequent washing of surfaces.
The big surge in new cases that peaked about a month ago nationally, continues to build in Arizona — but much more slowly.
Arizona’s relatively low vaccination rate has made it a national hotspot.
Gila County’s doing better than a few weeks ago, when it had one of the highest infection rates in the state. New cases in the last two weeks have declined 40%, to about 28 per 100,000 compared to 35 per 100,000 statewide.
However, Gila County is still considered at “very high risk” for unvaccinated people, with 15 new cases per day. At least 1 in 6 residents have been infected so far — a total of more than 9,000 cases. The most recent figures show that 11% of the COVID tests are still coming back positive.
Unfortunately, Gila County still has a lower vaccination rate than either the state or the nation. Only 51% of the population is fully vaccinated, including 68% of those older than 68. About 20% of those under 20 have been vaccinated statewide, but only 10% of those in Gila County.
Payson schools have reported a lot of cases among faculty and students, but the numbers appear to be waning.
Since the start of the semester, 136 students and 22 faculty have tested positive for the virus — most of them at the middle school and high school. That has generated 887 close contacts among students but just seven among staff — since more than 80% are vaccinated.
However, the number of new cases has barely increased since last week — compared to the peak of the cluster.
Studies continue to accumulate showing that masks, ventilation and vaccines remain the best way to contain and ultimately eliminate the virus.
This week, Pfizer submitted data to the federal Food and Drug Administration showing that a vaccine in children 5 to 12 produces a strong immune response, with fewer serious side effects than many already approved vaccines. The FDA has already approved the Pfizer vaccine for teens aged 12 to 18. The approvals will initially remain for “emergency use,” which means school districts are not yet requiring the vaccine in the same way they do for measles, mumps, rubella, polio and other communicable diseases.
Moderna is expected to submit results on the use of its two-shot vaccine among teens and children shortly. In adults, the Moderna vaccine has proven itself somewhat more effective than Pfizer.
One recent study showed that surgical masks filter out 76% of the particles capable of spreading COVID, compared to 37% of the particles in three-layered cloth masks. One comprehensive study in India found that when 42% of people in a village regularly wore masks, the risk of a COVID infection dropped 11% with surgical masks and 5% with cloth masks. Because of the exponential way in which the virus spreads, even an 11% reduction can significantly reduce the total number of cases.
Nonetheless, vaccines remain a far better way to reduce community spread, according to the research.
Infections among children have more than doubled this year with the resumption of in-person classes — but children still rarely get seriously ill. Some have developed a fatal inflammatory disease months after a mild infection, but that’s still a very rare event. However, studies show schools can readily incubate clusters of cases, which keep spreading back out into the community — with sometimes lethal consequences for more vulnerable adults.
Surveys have shown parents are increasingly willing to get their kids vaccinated. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that one if four parents have had a child quarantine at home in the course of the current school year. The survey found 58% of parents support mask mandates in schools, 35% oppose mask mandates and 4% say only unvaccinated students and staff should be required to wear masks. The number who said they would get their child vaccinated as soon as possible rose from 26% in July to 35% in August. However, 22% still say they will “definitely not” get their child vaccinated.
One other study raised an additional intriguing option for schools.
That study found that inexpensive portable air filters with dense HEPA filters successfully remove almost all COVID viral particles from the air. They did the study in a hospital, after finding that unvaccinated, mask-wearing doctors and nurses still often got infected by their patients, according to the summary of the research published in the journal Nature.
The researchers installed the portable, fine-mesh air filters in hospital rooms, the wards and the intensive care unit. The team found plenty of viral particles in the air when the filters were turned off, but very few when the filters were running. Curiously, they didn’t find many particles in the air of the intensive care ward with or without the filters. This may reflect the life cycle of the virus. A growing number of studies show the virus reaches the greatest concentrations in the nasal passages early in an infection — when people don’t even know they’re contaminated. By the time they end up in the intensive care ward, the viral load is much lower — and the biggest problems at that point may actually stem from the immune systems reaction to the infection.