Despite concerns by school administration, the Higley Unified Governing Board made masks optional on campuses.
The policy took effect April 27 after the board voted at a special meeting a day earlier. At that time, the administration proposed making masks mandatory only inside buildings and district vehicles and board member Tiffany Shultz suggested “make face masks optional effective tomorrow.”
The board voted 4-1 for optional masks with board President Kristina Reese casting the lone “no” vote and administration expressed concerns about changing the policy.
Board member Michelle Anderson said she favored an optional mask policy because of consistency concerns, noting that in settings like lunch and at athletic events, “children have been exposed due to mask inconsistencies for months.”
Off campus, Anderson said, “mask wearing hasn’t been consistent after school hours as children gather in friend and social groups without masks. I’ve witnessed this since summer of 2020.”
“Also, looking at our March and April numbers after spring break, when travel and social gatherings occurred with mask inconsistencies, our numbers are low, and that’s after families were very close together and traveling,” she said.
Anderson also said masks requirements hinder the student experience.
“Students are noticeably less social, quieter, and some completely unhappy with masks on at school,” Anderson said. She added that “students exhibit sadness, difficulty breathing, uncomfortableness, and cannot focus because of the distractions created by masks.”
Conversely, Anderson said that in the district where she teaches, masks are optional. “Some students don’t mind wearing a mask, but 93 percent of my students are currently choosing to not wear a mask in my classroom,” she said, adding:
“Without masks on, students have been happier and more productive. Students that sat slumped in their seats and hardly participated in class discussions are completing their assignments and they’re brand-new students.”
Shultz echoed Anderson’s concerns, stating, “Masks aren’t being worn properly. My kids pick their masks up off the back of the car or off the ground and the germs are getting on their face.”
“If your family chooses to wear a mask, I respect your decision, and my children, and my family, and I hope everyone in the community continues to respect each other,” she said.
Board member Jill Wilson said, “Whatever is the right decision for your family, make it,” and called for people to “empathize with their opposing view.”
Reese acknowledged that a vote on whether to require masks is an “absolute no-win situation” and “we continue to have a divided community” over a mandate.
Reese said board members have received multiple emails advocating on both sides of the debate and that “you can see both sides of it, you can feel for each person that you’re reading their comments from. So, it has been a difficult decision.”
Reese cited end-of-year necessities like AP tests, finals and graduation, asking, “What does that look like if their class is quarantined or if they’re quarantined, and they have to do it online?”
“We’ve finally been able to move a little bit and get some events happening,” Reese said. “What’s going to happen if we start having an outbreak and these events get canceled?”
HUSD Associate Superintendent Dr. Dawn Foley said the original amended policy making masks mandatory inside buildings and district vehicles was in line with Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
The proposed policy amendment would have lowered the district’s definition of “physical distance” from 6 feet to 3 feet, “in alignment with the CDC recommendation,” Foley said.
The proposed policy amendment would have stayed in effect until May 31.
Foley said with 22 school days left at the time of the meeting, making masks optional “changes our communication structures and when and how we have to quarantine.”
Foley also said students, families, and employees entered this year’s instructional models and employment contracts “with the understanding that we would follow certain mitigation strategies” until the end of the school year.
“We did have a lot of families who returned to us from spring break with the idea that we would be following this mitigation,” Foley added.
District Nurse Jillian Fulton shared the Arizona Department of Health Services’ recommendations surrounding masks at schools.
“Nothing has changed with face-covering guidelines or contact tracing, and [ADHS] have no plans to change anything in that regard,” Fulton said. “They do have a lot of concerns, and they do not agree with face coverings going optional right now.”
“If we move to face-covering-optional now, we move completely away from our communication protocols that have proven effective, and our community is accustomed to expecting,” Fulton said.
Fulton said making masks optional would “be a shift from primary and secondary exposure to ‘everyone has exposure.’”
Fulton said when the distinction between primary and secondary exposure is removed, “if there is a positive case in the classroom, everyone in the classroom will be notified of potential exposure.”
“We may need to quarantine an entire classroom, even if they are wearing face coverings, depending on the number of cases in a class,” she warned. “The risk of quarantine will likely be higher when face coverings are optional.”
At the Monday meeting, 11 community members commented on the district’s mask policies with nine favoring an optional policy.
One parent said her child received a medical mask exemption for asthma but since the District did not allow for exemptions. she moved him to a different school.
“My children have suffered headaches, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and more from wearing masks all day, all year,” she said.
Others shared similar concerns.
“The time for change is now,” another parent said. “Every family should have the right to choose whether their children wear masks at school, just as parents were given the choice as to whether their children would attend in-person or virtual schooling.”
Another parent said, “End the fear, end the current face covering policy.”
But another parent countered, “Wearing masks is not only the number one recommended mitigation strategy from the CDC for schools. It is also what every parent sitting in this very room agreed to when they signed their child up for in-person schooling this year.”
Higley joins Mesa Public Schools, where masks become optional tomorrow, May 3. Gilbert Public Schools and Chandler Unified are making masks mandatory until the end of this month while Tempe Union and Kyrene have shown no indication of when they might change their mandatory mask policy.