PHOENIX -- The school year began on Monday in classrooms across the Phoenix Union High School District, and despite Arizona's ban on mask mandates, students and staff were all wearing masks indoors in adherence to the district's mitigation requirements.
On June 30, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law prohibiting mask mandates in Arizona schools. But since the signing, there has been a dramatic uptick in the number of COVID-19 infections across the country.
Arizona has seen its daily case average increase by 327% in the last month, and hospitalizations are now at their highest point since early February, with more than 1,400 patients currently receiving care, according to federal data.
Given the changing circumstances, several districts in Arizona are now opting to require masks, as recommended by the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for "localities to encourage universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status."
Dr. Chad Gestson, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, has vowed that he will do whatever he feels is best for the health and safety of his students and staff, including defying the governor's orders, and thus requiring face coverings in classrooms.
"This decision -- all decisions that we made -- but this particular one is not about defiance. It's ultimately about science," Gestson told ABC News.
According to state law, the law prohibiting mask mandates will not go into effect until 90 days after the end of the legislative session. Thus, the mask mandate will not formally begin until Sept. 29.
Following the updated recommendations from the CDC, Ducey reasserted his stance on banning masking in schools.
"Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn't vaccinated. We've passed all of this into law, and it will not change," Ducey wrote in a statement on July 27. "The CDC today is recommending that we wear masks in school and indoors, regardless of our vaccination status. This is just another example of the Biden-Harris administration's inability to effectively confront the COVID-19 pandemic."
Gestson, who has led the Phoenix Union district high schools since 2015, explained that the decision was the result of concerns over high transmission, and the rapidly spreading coronavirus infections in the area, as he brought nearly 30,000 students back to in-person learning across the district.
"We made a commitment from day one, this was March of 2020, that we would do absolutely everything in our control, to protect our staff and our students and our families, and we made a commitment to our communities that we would be courageous," he said.
With the emergence of the delta variant, he continued, the district became very concerned about the aggressive nature of the virus.
Gestson said he is fully aware of the legislation that bans masks mandates, and the potential litigation and public backlash that could follow the move.
However, he said, the decision was ultimately an easy one.
"Lives are at stake," Gestson said. "We are bringing back 32,000 souls, and we had to weigh the implications and the consequences. Our people need us to protect them."
One of the district's teachers, Douglas Hester, has already filed a lawsuit against the district over the decision to mandate masks for students and faculty, asserting that it was "in violation of state law," Health Freedom Defense Fund's legal team, who is representing Hester, told ABC News in a statement.
"The power to legislate with respect to health issues is reserved to the states and no school district can decide to unilaterally implement rules which contradict the will and intent of the people's elected representatives in the legislature," the group wrote, ahead of a hearing planned for next week.
When asked about the lawsuit, Gestson declined to give details on the active litigation, but said that he felt "very comfortable" with the decision, both from a legal perspective and because, he asserts, "we made the right decision," following the guidance of the CDC and other health professionals.
"If we get to the 29th, and the spread is still high or substantial, the recommendations from CDC and others still say that masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, are critical to the health and safety, then Phoenix Union is prepared, as always, to do whatever we need to protect our people and ultimately we'll cross that bridge when we get there at late September," Gestson said.
Educational experts have stressed that pandemic learning did not work for all students, and has also led to a dramatic surge in the number of students absent on a typical school day, regardless of whether remote learning is in place or not.
"Well over 90% of our students are back on campus," Gestson said. "We don't want to find ourselves in a position where we're back in remote learning, which is why we are really clear that if the science teaches us how to mitigate the spread of COVID, we're gonna follow that. And ultimately the decision that we made our mask as a part of that."
Alongside masks, other mitigation strategies are also being implemented. Although social distancing is not always feasible among students in large high schools, other measures, such consistent disinfecting, ensuring that sick people stay home and good contact tracing protocols, have been put in place.
The No. 1 mitigation strategy, asserted Gestson, is vaccination.
Phoenix Union has taken the lead on hosting vaccination events, partnering with local pharmacies, and having drive-thru vaccinations in parking lots, Gestson noted. Over the summer, he said, gyms, cafeterias and auditoriums were also the sites of vaccinations for staff, parents and students older than 12, ultimately inoculating more than 10,000 people.
When asked how parents, staff and students in his district felt about the mask mandate, Gestson said that although they would prefer not to wear masks, they understand it is important if schools are to remain in person.
"I've heard from so many students who said, 'Hey, I will wear this mask every day if that means I get to come to school every day.' And I have not had any issues with compliance of our mask requirement," said Gestson.
Gestson said he has heard from some parents who do not like the decision to require masks, but was happy with the "overwhelming support that we received from our staff, our students, our parents." Parents, he said, understand that the reason behind for the masks is to protect their kids, and ultimately, they are "extremely appreciative, not just of this decision, but all the work that we've done over the last year and a half to really prioritize their safety."
Phoenix Union high schools tells students to mask up, despite Arizona's statewide ban
Arizona has seen its daily case average increase by 327% in the last month.
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