Lawyers representing Catalina Foothills School District and Peoria Unified School District last week responded to a letter from Governor Doug Ducey's office that called their quarantine protocol "unlawful."
In a July 14 letter, Kaitlin Harrier, education policy advisor for Governor Ducey, told CFSD Superintendent Mary Kamerzell that the school's isolation policy violated an Arizona statute, particularly the section on face coverings, signed by Governor Ducey on June 30.
"Specifically, the practice of instituting a mandatory 14-day quarantine for unvaccinated students who have a COVID-19 exposure, but exempting vaccinated students, is contrary to Laws 2021, Chapter 404, Sec. 12, which states, "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," wrote Harrier in her letter.
A similar letter was sent to the Peoria Unified School District.
Harrier stated, under the Arizona Parents Bill of Rights, parents have the right to make healthcare decisions for their minor child, including vaccinations, and added that the policy would have detrimental effects on a child's education, with students unable to meet attendance requirements to advance to the next grade level.
"This policy will lead to entire classrooms of students under 12 being kept at home for nearly two weeks at a time and potentially on multiple occasions with no way to make up for that lost learning time," wrote Harrier.
In a letter responding to Ducey's office, John Richardson of the DeConcini, McDonald, Yetwin, and Lacy law firm said the statutes referenced in Harrier's letter do not apply to the school districts' COVID-19 isolation policies, nor do they restrict districts from following guidance from federal, state and local public health authorities.
"Parents and other community members have a right to expect that their local school district will do what it reasonably can to provide a safe educational environment for its students, and CFSD and PUSD are committed to providing such an environment," wrote Richardson. "Students who are required to quarantine based on exposure to COVID-19 are not abandoned. Both school districts provide instruction and assistance to such students during their temporary absence from school."
The dust-up between Ducey and the school districts comes as the delta variant spreads across Arizona and COVID cases have begun a troubling rise across the state.
Joe Gerald, an epidemiologist and professor at UA Zuckerman School of Public Health, said last week that 5,813 Arizonans were diagnosed with COVID-19, a jump of 48% from the previous week. It was the fifth consecutive week of rising cases.
"This week's changes makes it likely that Arizona will soon experience case rates greater than 100 per 100K residents per week, marking a transition from substantial to high levels of transmission," Gerald wrote in a report examining the state's climbing numbers. "Prudence suggests we heed this warning and prepare for the worst even as we hope for the best."
Catalina Foothills and Peoria Unified School Districts, along with other school districts across Arizona, follow the same Arizona Department of Health Services guidelines for quarantine and isolation, which states fully vaccinated individuals are not required to quarantine and quarantine can vary from seven to 14 days depending on various factors, like whether the person is symptomatic or lives in a congregate setting. School districts like Tucson Unified and Marana Unified reference the ADHS isolation and quarantine guidance. Other districts, like Chandler and Gilbert, follow the Maricopa County Department of Public Health guidelines, which along with ADHS state fully vaccinated individuals are not required to quarantine.
In her letter, Harrier said the policy "must be rescinded immediately," and states the Arizona Department of Health Services is "prepared to provide guidance."
According to Ducey's office, the language in the legislation is specific to schools and is not the same as general public health guidelines.
"It takes into account that school is the safest place for kids, whether they are vaccinated or not, and that they have a right to receive in-person education," said C.J. Karamargin, communications director for the Governor's office, in an email response. "Quarantine is a mitigation strategy. This law prohibits discrimination based on vaccination status. The use of any mitigation strategy should comply with the law."
However, ADHS K-12 School Guidance for COVID-19 references their own isolation and quarantine guideline document, which schools use as reference for their policies. Under key mitigation strategies, they list "Contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine" with a link to the guidance.
Both Catalina Foothills or Peoria school districts made masking optional and do not require vaccinations in compliance with recently signed statute.
The Arizona Department of Health Services had not responded as of deadline regarding whether officials will update their own guidelines to match Ducey's position on the statute.
On Friday, July 16, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry sent a letter to Pima County school districts assuring them of the support from the county and health department.
Huckelberry said in his letter that Pima County had "independent statutory authority and the responsibility to take such actions as required to protect the community from infectious disease." Further, the county could go before a court to request an "enforceable order of quarantine" if necessary.
"Please be assured that Pima County and our Health Department remain committed to you and all our schools as you work to maintain a safe and healthy school environment," said Huckelberry. "Now more than ever, as the delta variant comes into this community, it is critical that we continue to work as a team to ensure the health of all of Pima County."