Despite rising COVID-19 rates, some Arizona districts plan to make face masks optional

By Yana Kunichoff | Arizona Republic

Several Arizona school districts will move to make indoor face masks optional when students return after winter break, despite rising COVID-19 numbers.

Kyrene School District and Scottsdale Unified School District have had mask mandates for some of this school year, but both announced they will be changing their policies in January.

“Nearly all Kyrene students will have the chance to be fully vaccinated in the coming weeks, and that presents an opportunity to review Kyrene’s mitigation strategies,” district Superintendent Laura Toenjes said in a message to families on Nov. 15. 

Public health officials have warned that increased travel during the holiday season could increase the spread of COVID-19. Arizona is already seeing wide virus spread: The state’s seven-day death rate per 100,000 people ranked fourth among U.S. states and territories as of this weekend.

Research from earlier this year on the effect of masks in public schools found schools in Maricopa and Pima counties without a mask mandate were 3.5 times more likely to have COVID-19 outbreaks than those that started the academic year requiring face coverings.

“I think this is an issue of misplaced confidence,” said Dr. Ruth Franks Snedecor, who works at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Vaccination doesn’t prevent the spread of COVID, it just means when you are infected you are less likely to require hospitalization or see long-term effects.”

Instead, says Snedecor, districts should continue layered mitigation efforts that include face masks, testing and ventilation.

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