By Kathy Hoffman, AZ Superintendent of Public Instruction and candidate for reelection

Before the start of the school year, I was optimistic about what the new academic year would look like for our students and educators. As more Arizonans became vaccinated, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel and a potential return to normalcy. However, before the school year even started, it became abundantly clear that we were in a worse position than before.

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When the pandemic first hit Arizona in 2020, our schools did not have the resources to switch to virtual learning abruptly. We were still learning about the virus and what steps we needed to keep our students safe. We learned many lessons from the past year and a half, and we should have been able to re-open schools safely. However, too many lawmakers and leaders chose to ignore everything that we learned and enact laws that completely went against the guidance of public health experts.

Since the legislature and Governor passed a school mask ban, too many students are filling up hospital beds instead of their classrooms. Healthcare professionals, public education leaders, and pediatricians agree, kids learn best in the classrooms. Until we are entirely on the other side of this pandemic, we must take every necessary precaution to protect students’ health and safety in those classrooms and ensure minimal disruption to learning.

Anti-science violence

Unfortunately, almost every precaution and mitigation strategy had been essentially made illegal, and it tied the hands of our educators and administrators. Thankfully, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that GOP lawmakers violated Arizona’s constitution when they included their mask ban in the state budget passed in June. However, even with this ruling, schools still face consequences if they listen to public health experts. Suppose school leaders decide to implement policies proven to slow the spread of COVID-19, which the CDC recommends. In that case, they face incredible backlash that ranges from threats of losing funding by Governor Ducey to violence from those who choose to ignore science.

When leaders dangerously ignore science and play political charades to advance their political future, our children suffer. Our students are dealing with 19 months of uncertainty. They deserve leaders who will stand up for them and enact proactive legislation addressing the learning disruption that happened throughout the pandemic. Our students are also in critical need of more mental health support to help them cope with the pandemic’s extreme hardships. There could not be a more imperative time to enact policies that comprehensively support the health and safety of our students. We know what needs to be done to keep our students safe, learning, and in the classroom. It is long past time that lawmakers put politics aside and protect our students.

This article was previously published in The Mule News.