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Ducey takes on COVID-19 protocols in Arizona schools

Gov. Ducey doesn't want schools to quarantine unvaccinated students who may have been exposed to coronavirus. But Arizona's top educator disagrees.

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey’s office doesn’t want schools to quarantine unvaccinated students who may have been exposed to COVID-19.

In letters sent to the Peoria Unified School District and Tucson’s Catalina Foothills School District, the governor’s office claims the districts’ policy of requiring unvaccinated students exposed to the deadly virus to quarantine is unlawful.

The letter states:  “The practice of instituting a mandatory 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated students who have a COVID-19 exposure, but exempting vaccinated students is contrary to Laws 2021, Chapter 404, Sec. 12, which states, “A school district or charter school may not require a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for covid-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.

Both districts that received the letters said they are following guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services, ‘Release from Isolation and Quarantine,’ which states people should quarantine for 14 days if they’ve been in close contact with a person who tested positive.

ADHS currently exempts fully vaccinated people from isolation if they meet certain requirements, like not being inpatients or residents in healthcare or congregate healthcare settings and have remained asymptomatic since the most recent COVID-19 exposure.

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In an email to 12 News, State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman disagreed with the governor and said that quarantining is one of the only tools schools have left to maintain safe in-person learning.

“I am tired of Arizona’s public schools being a leverage point for the Governor’s political conversation on COVID-19 that growlingly has nothing to do with science or public health,” Hoffman said in a three-paragraph statement.

In a joint letter, attorneys hired by both Peoria and Catalina districts, said the schools are in full compliance with the statute included in HB 2898, which was signed on June 30 and went into effect July 1.

The new law said schools cannot require vaccines or that anyone, student or staff, wear a mask. However, it does not apparently prohibit quarantining at all.

“While parents in Arizona are empowered to decide whether and where their children attend public school, they are not permitted to dictate which of the school’s otherwise lawful health and safety procedures their children will follow once the decision to attend public school has been made,” the letter sent to Ducey’s office on Thursday said.

The attorneys representing the districts detailed that Arizona’s Parent Bill of Rights is not applicable even though the governor’s office lists it as a form of intrusion the districts were impeding on.

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Peoria School District will continue to follow ADHS and Maricopa County Health Department guidelines and make changes accordingly if those are changed, the districts’ chief communications officer Danielle Airey said.

She added that if a student is quarantined, they have online school learning set up.

“We have that process in place and we’ll continue to follow that this school year like we have since the pandemic started,” Airey added.

The governor’s office declined 12 News interview requests, but an email said both vaccinated and unvaccinated students should get the same treatment and stay in the classroom.

“With these letters, he’s putting our kids’ lives in danger, the ones that can’t be vaccinated,” said Jennifer Thorstad who lives in Maricopa and has two small children that currently don’t qualify to get a COVID-19 dose.

Although her kids don’t attend the district the governor’s office highlighted, Thorstad said every parent in the state is affected by such measures.

“It makes me a little more nervous to send my child to school this school year as oppose to even last year,” she added.

As classes for the upcoming academic year are set to begin in the following weeks, Kelly Rein, a father of four children who don’t qualify to get coronavirus vaccines, said he is worried.

“I think it’s a little of an overreach by the governor’s office,” Rein said. “I’m concerned that schools don’t have all the tools they need to keep them safe.”

As of Thursday afternoon, the Peoria School district said it had not received a message to their response to the Governor’s letter.

Below are the full statements released by school officials:

In response to the governor’s letters sent to school districts, Secretary of State Kathy Hoffman sent this statement to 12 News:

“Since Governor Ducey claimed victory on COVID-19, he has completely left our young students and those who are unvaccinated behind. With the prohibition of masks and COVID-19 vaccine requirements for public schools, many students – particularly in elementary schools – have limited lines of defense against this virus. A quarantine period for exposed, unvaccinated individuals is one of the only tools left to maintain a safe in-person learning environment. 

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that our young, unvaccinated students are not needlessly exposed to COVID-19 or any other illness. I applaud public school districts and charters for following the guidance of public health officials to ensure student and staff safety this upcoming school year. 

Finally, it is beyond frustrating that Governor Ducey would choose to single out public school districts in contradiction to guidance on COVID-19 quarantine periods issued by public health experts – just days before the next academic year starts for many schools. I am tired of Arizona’s public schools being a leverage point for the Governor’s political conversation on COVID-19 that growingly has nothing to do with science or public health. 

Catalina Foothills School District issued this statement to 12 News in regard to the letter it received Wednesday:

“Like other public school districts, we do not write our own COVID-19 isolation and quarantine guidance policy. We use the practices set forth in the Arizona Department of Health Services Release from Isolation and Quarantine Guidance. We are perplexed by the letter, as it seems to indicate that the current ADHS guidance to K-12 schools is not in compliance with state law. We will definitely follow up with the ADHS and the PCHD for their review.”

A spokesperson for Peoria Unified School District sent 12 News the below statement after receiving the Governor’s office letter:

“We have received the letter referenced in the @9thFloorAZ tweet from the Office of the Governor regarding our quarantine policies. Peoria Unified continues to follow the requirements of Arizona Department of Health Services  (ADHS), which provides quarantine and isolation guidance regarding vaccinated individuals on their website, as well as Maricopa County Department of Health Services. We look forward to working with the Governor’s policy advisors and ADHS if there is a need to make changes to our current practices and to communicate any changes directly to our community.”

Ducey’s office declined 12 News request for an interview but sent this statement regarding the letters sent:

“We expect Arizona's public school to comply with state law and we're not going to allow anyone to deny Arizona kids an education. Governor Ducey and the Arizona Legislature addressed this issue just a few weeks ago. Lawmakers passed HB 2898 on June 30, Governor Ducey signed it the same day and it went into effect on July 1. The language in this legislation is specific to schools and it's not the same as general public health guidelines. It takes into account that school is the safest place for kids, whether they are vaccinated or not, and that they have a right to receive in-person education.”

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