Robert Robb | Arizona Republic
Troy Warren for PhoenixNewsAndTalk.Com
Arizona schools should be open. But they also should be free to make their decisions to mitigate COVID-19 transmission risks.
In managing the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Doug Ducey has gotten the balance between open and shut generally right.
Given current conditions, he and GOP lawmakers are correct to require schools to be open for in-person instruction. However, they are wrong to micromanage how schools operate safely or preclude options for doing so.
Ducey is having a row with two school districts, Peoria here in Maricopa County and Catalina Foothills in Pima County. The two announced that unvaccinated students with a confirmed exposure to COVID-19 had to quarantine for a period of time, while vaccinated students didn’t. Other school districts are reportedly considering similar policies.
Ducey’s education adviser, Kaitlin Harrier, fired off preemptory letters asserting that the two districts were in violation of a recently enacted law forbidding school districts from requiring “a student or teacher to receive a vaccine for COVID-19 or to wear a face covering to participate in in-person instruction.” She instructed the districts to rescind the policy “immediately.”
Whether requiring unvaccinated, but not vaccinated, students to quarantine after a COVID exposure violates the law can be argued. But several things about the ruction stand out.
Governor has no direct authority over schools
The first is how much the governor is beyond his writ.
In the Arizona system of government, the only formal role the governor has in K-12 education is to sign or veto legislation passed by the Legislature. He has no direct authority over the management of schools. That is vested in the Board of Education and the independently elected superintendent of public instruction. The governor, acting directly or through his education advisor, has no authority to tell school districts to do or not to do anything.
Moreover, the governor is not a law enforcement official. If the governor believes that an agency that reports directly to him is violating the law, he can order it to come into compliance with the law as he reads it.
That, however, is not the case here. The school districts don’t report, directly or indirectly, to the governor. He has no authority to instruct them to come into compliance with the law as he reads it. If he thinks the law isn’t being followed, his option is to refer the matter to the attorney general. The letters from Harrier have no legal standing or consequence whatsoever.
Limiting options to slow transmission is reckless
Then there is how inapposite the statute in question is, irrespective of whether interpreted the way the governor does or the way the districts do.
What we know about COVID-19 continues to evolve, as does it.
It now seems very clear that students are better off if schools are open for in-person instruction. However, there remains a transmission risk in schools, one heightened by the delta variant.
How best to manage the transmission risk remains considerably less clear. Which makes a statute that limits options, such as the Legislature passed, remarkably wrongheaded and reckless.
It makes all the sense in the world for schools to require staff to be vaccinated, subject to very narrow exceptions. If there are outbreaks within the student population, a temporary mask mandate would be a prudent step to mitigate transmission.
And temporarily quarantining students who have a confirmed COVID-19 exposure is an appropriate precaution. Treating unvaccinated and vaccinated students differently regarding quarantines is defensible based upon what is currently known and believed, although the extent to which the vaccinated can still get and transmit the virus hasn’t been fully ascertained.
Schools should be free to make their own choices
The reaction against lockdowns, fully warranted, shouldn’t extend to outlawing sensible precautions and measures to mitigate transmission.
The virus hasn’t been eradicated. It remains a threat, most acutely to the unvaccinated.
The economy and schools should be open. People should be free to make their own decisions about the risks they want to take.
But organizations, including businesses and schools, should also be free to make their own decisions about the measures they want to take to operate safely and mitigate transmission risks. And that should include the option of requiring vaccinations, masks and quarantines.
Ducey has rescinded most of his emergency orders. Managing the virus at this point doesn’t require extraordinary gubernatorial actions or the seizing of uncustomary power.
It’s time for Ducey to get back in his lane and stay there.
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