Arizona public colleges institute mask mandate, potentially clashing with state law

Dive Brief:

  • Arizona’s three public four-year colleges said this week they will require mask-wearing in some indoor settings, potentially in conflict with a state prohibition on such mandates.

  • Arizona State University said Wednesday face coverings will be mandatory in such spaces as classrooms and laboratories. The University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University followed suit the same day, announcing similar rules.

  • Whether the state will challenge the institutions’ policies is yet unknown. A new Arizona law prohibits public colleges from instituting coronavirus testing or masking requirements for students who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 or don’t disclose their vaccination status. 

Dive Insight:

In mid-June, Arizona State attempted to establish coronavirus safety protocols: students who declined to share whether they got the shot would be subject to a daily health check, twice-weekly coronavirus screenings and would need to wear face coverings indoors and outside. 

Political blowback came immediately. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, issued an executive order the day following Arizona State’s announcement, blocking public institutions from mandating the vaccines or masks if students don’t disclose their vaccination status. 

“This is bad policy, with no basis in public health,” Ducey wrote on Twitter. Near-identical language to the executive order was later included in state budget legislation, which Ducey signed.

As recently as Monday, U of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins was publicly signaling the new law prevented public colleges from mandating mask-wearing. Yet his institution and the two other four-year public universities moved forward with the rule.

Northern Arizona spokesperson Carly Banks said in an email officials believe the policy complies with state regulations because it does not differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated students. 

Neither representatives from the other two public colleges, nor a spokesperson for Ducey, responded to Higher Ed Dive‘s request for comment by publication time Thursday. 

An Arizona State spokesperson told the Arizona Republic that neither Ducey’s executive order nor the new law bans masking requirements. 

“Instead, it prohibits the universities from either requiring vaccinations or imposing different requirements on students to attend classes (such as masking or testing) based on the student’s vaccination status or willingness to disclose that status,” the spokesperson said.

A spokesperson for Ducey did not answer the publication’s questions as to whether the governor’s office considered the universities’ policies illegal. 

Colleges in other Republican-led states, including Alabama and Florida, have also had to navigate policymakers’ limits on coronavirus mitigation measures. On Wednesday, the governing board for the University of Arkansas decided to require masks on campus, the Associated Press reported. That decision came after a judge blocked a state law banning mask mandates.

The American College Health Association and dozens of higher ed groups recently came out against lawmakers’ restrictions, calling on them to allow colleges to use every tool at their disposal to fight the spread of the virus.

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