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Arizona Teacher Says Lack Of Mask Mandate Leaves Teachers And Students On Edge

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To mask or not to mask. It's been a surprisingly heated debate in this country throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Now as a highly contagious variant continues to spread, causing an alarming rise in cases and hospitalizations, the debate has flared back up and with students heading back to in-person school, many of the arguments are centered on school districts, like Chandler, Ariz., home to Hamilton High School. Students there returned to class last month, and masking is optional.

DIANE LUNDAHL: The first week, we had two positive cases. By the following Tuesday, we had 32. And then by the following Tuesday, we were up to 60-something.

MARTIN: That's Diane Lundahl, a Spanish teacher at Hamilton High School. They can't require masks because the state's governor, Doug Ducey, has banned those mandates. So after that initial outbreak, she says the school responded by asking people to social distance.

LUNDAHL: They make it sound like this magical mitigation strategy that's going to keep our students from getting COVID-19. And three feet without masking means absolutely nothing. And it feels like a big farce.

MARTIN: And that's what frustrates Lundahl. She feels the district is more concerned about pleasing anti-mask parents than they are about keeping people safe.

LUNDAHL: They're so afraid to antagonize the parents that want freedom of choice for their students while they're putting others in danger at the same time. Our school board meeting was full of voices that were refusing to mask and refusing to break the state law. So it's very difficult.

MARTIN: She fears that without any kind of mask mandate, things could get much worse.

LUNDAHL: We're a school of over 4,100 students, and it's an enclosed building. So the hallways are very congested. So as far as what does it look like in the hallway, a lot of students lined up waiting for teachers to disinfect their desks outside of their doors. Our lunch period is extremely congested, and they can't mask while they're eating.

MARTIN: As a result, Lundahl says, some students across the district are nervous, especially those who are immunocompromised or who cannot get vaccinated.

LUNDAHL: There are some students, though, that do definitely have anxiety. And I hear that a lot, mostly from the 12-and-under kids, the kids in the junior high and in the elementary school. I have, you know, a nephew, and I've got neighbors who speak to it. And there is anxiety going on in those areas for sure. And we do have some immunocompromised students at the high school level that are also very concerned. But they're definitely not the loudest voices.

MARTIN: With tensions running high and the lack of a mandate, Lundahl and other teachers have turned to leading by example.

LUNDAHL: We did ask our administration to start modeling the masking as well because we felt like the modeling was the best way to show students. We also began to put out signs that teachers could print and put outside their doors, saying that we would highly appreciate masking.

MARTIN: Ultimately, Lundahl believes it's going to take big action to ensure that everyone is safe. But she says people in her school district can start small.

LUNDAHL: If people only understood that a small decision like masking could really take care of each other and make sure that we hit that end of the year mark with maybe an in-person graduation and an actual prom this year, the preventative factors, I think, are what's really missing from the conversation.

MARTIN: That was Diane Lundahl, a teacher at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.