Doug Ducey’s request that school districts follow state law met with backlash

In this Thursday, April 15, 2021, file photo, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey speaks during a bill signing in Phoenix. Ducey (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Gov. Doug Ducey’s office has sent letters to two Arizona school districts, Peoria Unified and Catalina Foothills, demanding they “immediately rescind” their policy of quarantining unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 because the policy breaks state law.

Kaitlin Harrier, education policy adviser to the governor, wrote that the districts’ mandatory 14-day quarantine policy violates state law, which says “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.”

Harrier cited the Arizona Parents Bill of Rights, which protects the right of parents to be the sole decision-makers on their child’s health. She said many parents were waiting for U.S Food and Drug Administration approval before allowing their child to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Children of parents who choose not to have their children get the COVID-19 vaccine should not be discriminated against for such decisions,” Harrier wrote in Wednesday’s letters.

Harrier expressed concerns of the governor’s office that the policy would cause entire classes of children under 12 who are too young to receive the vaccine to miss class with no way of making it up, and could make students unable to get the necessary attendance to progress to the next grade.

“Our kids deserve more time in the classroom, not less,” Harrier wrote.

She said the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) would provide guidance on how to protect the health and education of Arizona students in accordance with state law.

The legal counsel of the districts defended the policy and asked Ducey’s office to formally withdraw its request.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman criticized Ducey’s prohibition of masks and vaccination requirements in schools. She called the mandatory quarantine policy “one of the only tools left” to protect students from the virus and said Ducey’s request was “beyond frustrating.”

“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,” Hoffman said.

The Arizona School Boards Association called Ducey’s demands “nonsensical” and “in direct conflict” with the guidance of the ADHS.

“The consequences of the governor’s decisions for the health of Arizona students will be his to bear,” it said in a statement.

At least 29 Arizonans under the age of 20 have died from COVID-19.

“At this time, ASBA encourages all districts to continue following the guidance of the Arizona Department of Health Services and your local county health departments,” it said. “Changes to guidance on the issue of quarantine due to exposure must be communicated through proper channels to avoid confusion.”

The Catalina Foothills School District responded to the letter from Ducey’s office by saying it does not write its own COVID-19 isolation and quarantine guidance policies but follows practices recommended by the ADHS.

“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,” the district wrote. “We will definitely follow up with the ADHS and the (Pima County Health Department) for their review.”

By Elizabeth Troutman | The Center Square contributor