School Mask Debate Tests Arizona's Governor

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Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who is not allowing schools to impose mask mandates but is a vocal supporter of Covid vaccinations, has been battered from all political sides.

Students on their first day of class in Buckeye, Ariz., a state where few schools have mask mandates.
Credit...Benjamin Chambers/The Republic, via Imagn

Sept. 1, 2021Updated 2:56 p.m. ET

PHOENIX — Only weeks after Arizona’s students went back to school, coronavirus infections are forcing thousands of children and teachers into quarantine. Outbreaks around Phoenix are surging. In one suburban district, so many drivers are sick that school buses are running 90 minutes late.

All this in a state that ignored C.D.C. recommendations and banned school mask mandates weeks before classes resumed.

Now the back-to-school turmoil has cascaded far beyond Arizona’s classrooms, igniting a political uproar for Gov. Doug Ducey and other Republican leaders in this fast-changing desert battleground. The tumult underscores the perilous decisions facing governors in swing states where voters are divided over Covid-19 safety measures and personal freedoms.

Mr. Ducey, a business-minded Republican, spent much of the past year getting attacked by conservatives angry about pandemic restrictions and his defense of the 2020 election results. But he has since doubled down on anti-mask-mandate measures passed by Arizona’s Republican-run Legislature.

He pledged to withhold millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief from schools that pass mask mandates in defiance of a state law that takes effect at the end of September. He offered $7,000 vouchers to families that opt to leave districts that require face coverings. Masking decisions, he said, belonged to parents, not school officials.

“In Arizona we are pro-parent,” Mr. Ducey said at a recent news conference. “I want parents to do what they think is the right thing to do.”

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Credit...Pool photo by Ross D. Franklin

On the ground, schools say they are facing a no-win choice.

In the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, the school board called an emergency meeting in August to decide whether students and staff should be required to wear masks. School officials said violating state law could prevent the district from receiving $11 million to hire staff and help students catch up after so much lost school time.

The mask mandate failed, three votes to two.

Disheartened Chandler parents who supported the requirements said the board had put money above their children’s health.

“They’re not protecting our kids,” said Sandy Kirby, a Chandler parent and nurse.

But Kelli Wilson, a devoted Trump voter in Chandler whose 13-year-old son is unvaccinated and does not wear a mask to school, was gratified. Ms. Wilson, who had soured on Mr. Ducey when the gym she runs was forced to close down early in the pandemic, credited the governor with letting parents decide about masks.

“Finally Doug Ducey’s doing something right,” she said.

Mr. Ducey had kept a lower profile throughout much of the pandemic compared with the Republican governors of Florida, South Dakota and Texas, who built national reputations as combative opponents of Covid restrictions.

But as he looks to his political future after he leaves office next year because of term limits, Mr. Ducey is moving to the front of the volatile new battle over personal freedoms, children’s health and the politicization of pandemic relief money.

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Credit...Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Education groups have sued to overturn the mask-mandate ban, and more than a dozen school districts across Arizona have passed mask mandates despite the ban. The Biden administration warned governors like Mr. Ducey and Ron DeSantis of Florida not to block federal money from pro-masking schools.

The conflict is unfolding in a onetime Republican stronghold now torn in opposite directions, pulled to the left by growing numbers of young, college-educated voters and moderates in the booming Phoenix suburbs, and to the right by vocal Trump loyalists.

With virus hospitalizations climbing to about 2,000 people from about 520 in early July, many parents, teachers’ unions and public health officials said Mr. Ducey’s actions punished schools that were following scientific advice. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks for all students, staff and visitors inside schools.

“It puts people’s lives at risk,” said Jann-Michael Greenburg, president of the board of the Scottsdale Unified School District, which has faced threats since passing a temporary mask mandate. “I wonder if we would have won the battle against polio if this is how our governments behaved.”

Join Dr. Anthony Fauci and Times journalists (who are parents themselves) for a vital Q&A session for parents, educators and students everywhere.

Mr. Ducey, a vocal supporter of vaccinations, has been battered from several sides throughout the pandemic. Democrats criticized him for not imposing a statewide mask mandate and loosening restrictions prematurely.

Many of the loudest attacks, however, have come from the right wing of Arizona’s splintered Republican Party. In January, the state party censured him for taking emergency actions such as closing gyms and bars at the outset of the pandemic.

Mr. Ducey has also endured months of attacks from his Republican base in the wake of the 2020 election. Mr. Ducey had campaigned for President Donald J. Trump but declined to embrace Mr. Trump’s false claims about a rigged election. He certified President Biden’s 10,500-vote victory in Arizona but has kept largely quiet as a polarizing audit of the votes ordered by state Republican leaders drags on.

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Credit...Cheney Orr/Reuters

Some political observers saw Mr. Ducey’s moves against mask mandates as an effort to patch a rift with conservatives.

“He’s trying to court that constituency to move back,” said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican political strategist in Phoenix. “He’s never going to recover with them. He can’t. Once Trump starts tweeting about you in a derogatory sense, the gloves are off.”

Mr. Ducey is chairman of the Republican Governors Association and often mentioned as a potential candidate for president, vice president or United States Senate. He has said he is focused on his job and is not challenging Senator Mark Kelly, an Arizona Democrat up for re-election in 2022.

Last month, just after he wrapped up a solemn bill-signing ceremony in front of Holocaust survivors, Mr. Ducey held a rare news conference and faced a barrage of questions about the anti-mask measures. He quickly pivoted to criticize Mr. Biden’s handling of the coronavirus and a range of other issues as “weak and pathetic” and told the administration to butt out of Arizona’s mask debates.

“Why don’t they focus on their day job?” Mr. Ducey asked, his voice rising, as masked reporters crowded around him. “Take care of the nation’s borders, and help Americans leave Afghanistan, and leave the schools to the states.”

The clamor over masking has been fierce in Arizona, where thousands of redshirted teachers poured into the streets in Phoenix three years ago to demand better salaries and school funding.

Last year, Arizona let local governments write their own mask rules. But this summer, the State Legislature added a provision outlawing school mask mandates to a tax-cutting budget bill central to Mr. Ducey’s agenda. The governor signed the measure into law in late June.

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Credit...Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Arizona’s huge and politically powerful public colleges and universities, which are not bound by the same rules that restrict local schools, have passed their own mask mandates in a potential challenge to the state. Arizona State University announced mask requirements in classrooms and labs where they can’t social distance, and the University of Arizona is also requiring masks indoors where people cannot socially distance.

Kathy Hoffman, the superintendent of Arizona’s public schools, said the barrage of executive orders and legal fights had been “demoralizing” to school employees. While Arizona has not seen nearly as severe a spike as Florida or Texas, health officials in Phoenix recently warned that children under 12 — who are not eligible to be vaccinated — make up one-sixth of Maricopa County’s Covid-19 cases, and that hospitalizations of children have doubled monthly.

“People are feeling pretty devastated right now,” said Ms. Hoffman, an elected Democrat.

Some Republicans want even harsher penalties for defiant schools.

“They should lose as much funding as the State Legislature allocates to them,” said State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita, a Republican who is running to replace Arizona’s Democratic secretary of state. “What they are doing, the chaos they’re causing, is not only reckless but dangerous.”

It is a charge that pro-mask school board members throw back at Arizona leaders. Lindsay Love, a Chandler school board member, said she had received death threats and been called racist slurs throughout the pandemic. She worried that the state’s threats of withholding money from districts that impose mandates could have dangerous new consequences.

The state says “the health of our students doesn’t matter as much as those dollars,” Ms. Love said. “How much is a student worth to us if they die of Covid?”

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