Arizona schools couldn't require COVID-19 vaccines for enrollment under bill headed to governor

Ximena Tena, 8, receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine while holding onto her stuffed unicorn on Nov. 6, 2021, at Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix.
Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

A bill now on its way to Gov. Doug Ducey would block Arizona from ever requiring a COVID-19 vaccine for school enrollment.

It is one of the higher-profile proposals made in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one that medical professionals have warned could expose Arizonans — especially immunocompromised students — if there is another outbreak of the COVID-19 virus or a related variant.

Supporters of House Bill 2086 said any COVID-19 vaccination should happen voluntarily. The bill blocks any attempt to start the rule-making process that would add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required school immunizations.

The bill passed 16-12, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.  

No mandates for masks, vaccines

The state Senate on Tuesday also approved two other bills that fit with the anti-mandate mood of this year's legislation on COVID-19 protections. 

Both bills impose restrictions on mask and vaccine requirements related to COVID-19 for any level of government, from the courts to schools, city councils to state offices.

One measure, House Bill 2453, would bar those government offices from imposing mask mandates. But it makes an exception for long-standing practices related to workplace safety and infection control, as long as those practices are not related to COVID-19.

The Senate approved the bill on a party-line 16-12 vote with no comment and sent it to Ducey's desk.

A related bill, House Bill 2371, would require parental permission before any government entity could require a vaccine for anyone under age 18. It appears to provide an exception to a bill Ducey signed last month that prevents any vaccine requirement imposed by a taxpayer-funded arm of government.

It passed on a 17-11 vote but will need a final vote from the House before it goes to the governor.

What about medically fragile kids?

Arizona requires several vaccines for school enrollment, but COVID-19 is not one of them. Tuesday's vote seeks to ensure it won't get added. There's no indication that the state Department of Health Services has contemplated such a move, but House Bill 2086 would prevent health officials from ever starting the process.

Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix, called the bill "foolhardy," saying its passage could result in the parents of immunocompromised children opting not to send their child to school due to risk of exposure.

“Please, please keep in mind all the medically fragile kids we have in this state," said Marsh, who is a schoolteacher. This includes kids who might not even make it to adulthood, she said.

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Dr. Mary Ellen Rimsza of the Arizona chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics has said that if immunocompromised children face the prospect of learning in a classroom where they risk exposure to COVID-19, their parents may opt for remote learning.

Rep. Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear and the bill's sponsor, has said she believes the COVID-19 vaccine should be optional. And she has noted that children are not likely to contract the virus or, if they do, to suffer serious consequences.

"This is not a childhood disease," Osborne said in debate on the bill earlier this year.

According to the latest state statistics, about 21% of positive cases in Arizona are among those under 20 years old. Among that group, 69 people have died, according to the Department of Health Services. That's about 0.2% of total deaths in the state.

The state's current school vaccine policy allows for good-faith exceptions, which could address those parents who would object to the COVID-19 vaccine. Public health officials have argued to lawmakers, unsuccessfully, that even though schoolchildren are at lesser risk from COVID-19, they could transit the virus to the adults in their lives.

New laws rein in COVID-19 protocols

Ducey already has signed a number of bills that restrict COVID-19 protections, agreeing with arguments that most protocols should be voluntary.

Last month, he signed a bill into law to prevent any level of government that receives taxpayer dollars from requiring anyone to get a COVID-19 vaccination. It included an exception for health-care institutions.

He also signed a bill that bars publicly funded agencies from requiring face coverings for anyone under 18, unless parental permission is granted. That bill applies not only to COVID-19 but any other airborne virus. It was a reaction to school districts that had mask mandates in 2021, but also applies in other situations where a youth is required to wear a face mask.

Ducey also has signed bills that limit the power of governments to impose public health protections during an emergency. One bill exempts religious institutions from complying with emergency orders; another gives the Legislature the ability to weigh in on a governor's emergency declaration after 120 days.

All of the bills signed by Ducey will take effect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns. That makes their effective date likely in late August or early September.

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl.