Teacher sues to stop Phoenix school district’s mask mandate
PHOENIX (AP) — A Phoenix science teacher is asking a judge to put a halt to a districtwide mask mandate, which goes against a new state law, district officials said Tuesday.
Richard Franco, a spokesman for Phoenix Union High School District, confirmed Douglas Hester’s filing for a temporary restraining order on the mandate. The superintendent and governing board members are named as defendants in the motion.
“We stand behind our decision to require masks at this time and remain steadfast in our commitment to do all we can to protect our staff, students, families, and broader community,” Franco said in a statement.
Attorneys for the school district have been ordered to make their case at a hearing Wednesday in Maricopa County Superior Court. The court proceedings could be a test case for Arizona school districts determined to defy Republican Gov. Doug Ducey.
Phoenix Union, which resumed classes Monday, has about 28,000 students and 4,000 employees. Its governing board made the decision to enforce indoor mask-wearing last week.
Hester is listed on the district website as a biology, environmental science and math teacher at Metro Tech High School.
“No school district is above the law,” Alexander Kolodin, Hester’s attorney, told The Arizona Republic. “We are pleased to take action on behalf of this brave teacher to ensure government bodies follow state law.”
A second school, Phoenix Elementary, approved a mandatory mask rule Monday regardless of the vaccination status of students, staff and visitors. The only exceptions will be for special medical reasons.
“We know that our children learn best in person and we will implement mitigation strategies that help to minimize the spread of illnesses, reduce the need for quarantining, and avoid classroom and school closures,” a district statement said.
Phoenix Elementary has 14 schools primarily located in central Phoenix. The district’s more than 5,000 students start classes on Thursday.
The state’s prohibition against mask mandates by school districts was included in budget legislation enacted in late June. The legislation doesn’t take effect until Sept. 29, though it included a provision saying the prohibition is retroactive.
It’s not clear whether the state’s prohibition is now in force. A legislator who supports the prohibition has asked government lawyers to say when it takes effect.
In other developments:
— Virus-related hospitalizations in Arizona have more than doubled over the past month, according to data reported Tuesday by state health officials.
There were 1,207 COVID-19 patients occupying hospital beds as of Monday, up from 520 a month earlier on July 2. The state reported 1,974 additional COVID-19 cases and 30 more deaths, increasing the pandemic totals to 933,361 cases and 18,282 deaths.
— The chief clinical officer at Banner Health, the state’s largest hospital system, implored the public Tuesday to get vaccinated. Dr. Marjorie Bessel warned that case surges like those seen in July 2020 and in January are a strong possibility.
“The slope of what we’re starting to experience is starting to look very, very close to the exponential growth we experienced during those two very, large surges,” Bessel said during a virtual press conference.
Banner Health also announced it would tighten visitor restrictions due to increased virus spread. The restrictions include only allowing one or two visitors per patient per day, depending on location. Also, visitors must be at least age 12 and can’t have or be suspected of having COVID-19.
— Yavapai County announced Monday it will again close its public buildings to the public, starting Thursday, due to rising COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations and the county’s low vaccination rate, The Daily Courier reported.
As during previous closures during the pandemic, county offices and services will continue to operate though public access will be restricted, Board of Supervisors Chairman Craig Brown said.