Sherry Dorathy has long lived in Miami, Arizona, a small, once prosperous copper mining town tucked behind rugged hills and wind-carved rock formations.
A former special education teacher, she’s now the gentle-voiced superintendent of the Miami Unified school district 40. The district, like at least 13 others in the Grand Canyon state, requires students and staffers to wear masks indoors amid Arizona’s dangerous new surge of Covid-19 spurred by the Delta variant.
“We totally understand masks are not 100% protection. However, they are a deterrent. We want to make sure students, families and staff are as protected as they can be,” Dorathy says.
The Miami school district mask mandate follows CDC guidelines for schools that say both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated should wear masks indoors amid the pandemic’s current surge. And it’s in line with the thinking of most Americans, who in recent polling supported mask mandates in schools.
Yet in Arizona, any school district with a mask mandate draws the ire of the Republican governor, Doug Ducey, and his allies in the Republican-dominated statehouse who are ramping up a showdown at the very time Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations have worsened.
By Thursday evening, Arizona, with a population of about 7.1 million, had reported nearly 1 million Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. More than 18,600 people have died, 35 of them under the age of 20. That may rise, as the state’s positivity rate has soared to 10-14% – up from 5% in May.
While Arizona hospitals aren’t yet full, they’re experiencing an alarming uptick in Covid-19 patients, most of whom are not vaccinated. The Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association calls the uptick in the state cases “ominous.” Yet only 47.3% of Arizonans are fully vaccinated, compared to 51.7% nationwide.
In Gila county, where Miami sits, the vaccination rate is a bit higher. A little over 56% of residents have had at least one vaccination. And 47.9% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
But kids under 12 are particularly vulnerable because they are not old enough to get vaccinated.
A University of Arizona medical researcher reported recently that transmission among Arizona kids younger than 15 is “set to exceed those of all other age groups for the first time”. The report says “transmission among children” is “certainly driven by in-person instruction in the presence of the Delta variant”.
The main children’s hospital in Arizona, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, has seen an increase in cases and hospitalizations of kids with Covid-19, says Dr Wassim Ballan, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the hospital.
“Mortality is low but not zero,” he says.
He advocates for all protective measures – vaccines when possible, masks, handwashing, distancing, and the following of CDC guidelines.
One of those guidelines – wearing masks in indoor settings – will be difficult to follow when a new Arizona law that bans mask mandates in state-affiliated schools takes effect on 29 September. A recent court challenge to the law, filed by parents, teachers, school boards and other advocates for kids, notes that if schools aren’t allowed to impose Covid-19 mitigation measures, like masks, “students and teachers will get sick and some may die.”
In the meantime, Ducey, widely thought to have national political ambitions, has played hardball with mask-mandating school districts. He recently announced only districts “following all state laws” were eligible for $163m in federal grant money now in his control.
“Now that Ducey’s dangling cash, it’s only going to get worse,” says Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher whose classroom sits in a Maricopa county urban district with no mask mandate.
Risking the health and safety of kids for an apparent political advantage, she says, is “frankly disgusting”.
Joe Biden sicced Miguel Cardona, the secretary of education, on Ducey and other Republican governors who have bullied school districts that have imposed mask mandates. The president directed Cardona to “assess all available tool” to use against governors who are trying to keep school districts from protecting kids.
Ducey called Biden’s response “weak and pathetic”.
Ducey did not respond to requests for interviews for this article.
The school mask showdown has only served to further divide many in this politically polarized state. It’s at least as divisive as a continuing recount of votes in Maricopa county, which encompasses the Phoenix area, that has been widely criticized as an attack on free and fair elections. The recount was ordered by Republicans in the Arizona senate supporting Donald Trump.
“The average voter is exhausted by the constant partisan battle and the never-ending controversy,” says the Democratic strategist DJ Quinlan. Ducey, he adds, has “chosen to ignore the science and ignore the recommendations of the CDC in order to placate his political base”.
Unlike the rural Miami school district, most mask-mandating school districts are located in urbanized counties, where pro-mask and anti-mask parents are battling it out in school board meetings. “The high level of political verbiage and finger pointing distracts us from our job to help kids learn,” laments Jim Lemmon, a member of the Tempe elementary school district board.
Even the kids have taken up the fight, teasing each other for wearing or not wearing masks.
And yet in Miami, the divisiveness and vitriol over masking up is largely missing.
What matters in Miami is survival. And survival includes not getting Covid-19.
This is Arizona copper-mining country, which has endured a century of booms and busts. Today, Miami’s once bustling main street with its saloons with blinking neon lights is a ghost of itself, its sturdy brick buildings mostly shuttered or repurposed into things like antique shops.
The last year has been particularly grueling for town residents.
An estimated 30% of the town’s residents live in poverty, according to the US census. To make matters worse, a historic megadrought this summer kickstarted a huge wildfire that blackened more than 180,000 acres of pine, oak, and high desert hillsides near Miami. Unexpectedly powerful monsoonal rain storms followed, sending mudslides and floodwater into the town, leaving roadways and homes in a contrail of stinking muck and debris.
The school district opened a gym to the Red Cross, which sheltered flood victims there. Rodney Doney, a 59-year-old construction worker who spent the night there after he was evacuated from his hotel home, worries about the burn-scarred hills. “There’s nothing up there stopping the water any more,” he says. “Nothing to hold it back. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“This has been the worst year. The virus, the fires, the rainstorms, the trouble in Afghanistan. We’re in a hell of a mess. Everything has been going bad,” 84-year-old Raul Aguilar, a veteran and former mineworker, says as he waits for takeout from a Mexican restaurant lined by sandbags.
Aguilar wears masks, has been vaccinated and supports the district mask mandate. But at a welding supply store, a blue-eyed man wearing a T-shirt that reads “Liberty Guns Beer Trump” says: “I don’t have kids but if I did have kids I’d definitely oppose the mask mandate.” He worries masks will cause “a lot of damage” and “serious psychological implications”. And he’s dismayed by the number of folks in town who support kids wearing masks in schools.
Sherry Dorathy’s office is just up the muddy street from the nearby Walmart. Most of the schools in the district are located here – a campus of brick and glass buildings linked by playing fields, parking lots and sidewalks marked with blue X signs to remind students to maintain social distancing practices, even when they’re outside. Beyond the sidewalk, on the horizon, you can see the silhouette of a copper mine.
According to Dorathy, 763 students in all grades attend school here. (Another 658 students attend school online.) Most are students of color. About three-quarters qualify for free or reduced priced meals, which indicates their families are having serious financial challenges. Some live with grandparents or other elders. Many students don’t qualify for vaccines because they are under the age of 12.
Dorathy’s office is humble and tidy, with a conference table, a desk stacked with papers, a few chairs and a small table holding an American flag and a ceramic mother quail watching over her young.
It’s here that she worries and hopes. Like most school districts with mask mandates, the Miami school district will probably stop requiring masks in order to comply with the new state law that takes effect at the end of September, if it passes muster in the courts.
If the law takes effect, Dorathy says, at least students and staffers will have worn masks for six weeks.
“Six weeks,” she says hopefully.
“If we can get to six weeks, it will make a difference for us.”