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Biden backs school districts in fight against GOP mask mandate bans

Eight states, including Florida and Texas, are trying to ban mask mandates.

Children wearing masks sit at a classroom table.
Third graders in Los Angeles wear masks on the first day of school at Montara Avenue Elementary School, August 16, 2021.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The 2021-22 school year is here, and with the US once more facing an out-of-control surge of Covid-19 cases, the fight over public health measures in schools is reaching a fever pitch as K-12 students head back into classrooms.

Republicans in at least eight states are taking a hard line against classroom mask requirements, contrary to federal public health guidance — and increasingly, individual school districts, with the support of the Biden administration, are moving to mandate masks anyway to protect their students.

In Texas and Florida, the two largest states to block school mask mandates outright, the school year has already gotten off to a bad start. More and more students and teachers in both states are testing positive for the virus, and some school districts have been forced to shut down entirely.

Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah have all prohibited mask mandates in schools, according to Politico, though in Texas that ban is currently not in effect pending further litigation.

In Florida, where Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis last month issued a blanket ban on mask mandates imposed by school districts in the name of “parents’ freedom to choose,” teenagers and children under 12 are now testing positive for the virus at a higher rate than any other group, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Overall, the state has seen one of the worst Covid-19 resurgences in the country. Over the past week, Florida has reported an average of about 21,500 cases per day — more than it did during the worst of the pandemic in January.

Thousands of Florida students have been sent home because of possible Covid exposure, disrupting the school year almost before it begins. In places like Palm Beach County, as many as one in 50 students are currently under stay-at-home orders, the Palm Beach Post reported on Friday.

Pediatric hospitalizations from the virus are also climbing, even as ICU wards around the state approach capacity amid Florida’s delta variant-fueled surge — and the worst may be yet to come, since Florida’s most populous county, Miami-Dade, won’t even resume classes until next week.

Things in Texas are looking equally dire: Republican Gov. Greg Abbott banned mask and vaccination mandates in July, and as of this month, Covid outbreaks have temporarily shuttered at least four Texas school districts, while cases are soaring among students as the virus runs rampant throughout the state.

Abbott, who is fully vaccinated and has also received a booster shot, tested positive for a breakthrough case of Covid-19 on Tuesday, and Texas had more pediatric hospitalizations from Covid than any other state in the US as of earlier this week.

Some school districts are requiring masks anyway

In several states, school districts are ignoring their governors to implement mask mandates anyway, despite the threat of sanctions and lawsuits.

At least five school districts in Florida — those in Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach counties — have done so as of this week.

And at least eight counties in Texas have done likewise, according to the Texas Tribune. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who attempted to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, has promised to sue any entity that requires masks contrary to Abbott’s order banning such mandates, but has yet to do so.

“Yesterday I spoke with a mother of a child who died. Over the week, I’ve spoken with employees and their relatives, begging me to do the right thing,” Miami-Dade public schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho, whose school district is now requiring masks in schools, said this week. “I will do all that I can to do that.”

Currently, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance “recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status” because of the delta variant, which is highly transmissible and may also result in more severe illness among unvaccinated people.

Studies indicate that masks not only make a difference in limiting Covid-19 transmission by “asymptomatic or presymptomatic” individuals, but provide protection for uninfected people who are exposed to “respiratory droplets” from people who are sick with the virus.

And their importance is particularly pronounced for unvaccinated people — such as students younger than 12, who are not currently eligible to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.

As Vox’s Anna North reported earlier this month,

Schools that used masks well were still able to keep transmission low last year, Maldonado emphasized. And masks still work against delta, Zimmerman said, but with the variant more transmissible, it’s more critical than ever for schools to be meticulous about compliance. “It can’t be that there’s a slippage, or it’s hanging down at your chin for 10 minutes.”

However, DeSantis, who has made his opposition to public health measures like mask and vaccine mandates core to his national political profile, has threatened that the state board of education could withhold the salaries of public school officials who don’t go along with his ban on mask mandates.

In response, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday as part of a larger push to support school districts that require masks in classrooms that funds from the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that Democrats passed earlier this year — could be used to “backfill” any salaries withheld by the Florida board of education.

“As I’ve said before, if you aren’t going to fight Covid-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who is trying,” Biden said. “You know, we’re not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children.”

In addition to backfilling salaries, Biden’s secretary of education, former public school teacher and administrator Miguel Cardona, said this week in a blog post that the department could use its civil rights authority to support mask requirements, citing “students who may experience discrimination as a result of states not allowing local school districts to reduce virus transmission risk through masking requirements and other mitigation measures.”

“Let me reiterate,” Cardona said in a Friday statement. “We stand ready to assist any district facing repercussions for imposing CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention strategies that will protect the health and safety of students, educators, and staff.”

Polling suggests public health mandates are popular

While Abbott, DeSantis, and other GOP governors have successfully launched school mask requirements as a national controversy — to the point that teachers have been physically assaulted by anti-mask parents in a few cases — mandates actually have broad support in the US, according to several recent polls.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll, almost two-thirds of parents support schools requiring masks for unvaccinated students and staff, though results split sharply along partisan lines.

Additionally, an Axios-Ipsos poll released Wednesday found 69 percent of American adults support school mask mandates, and almost as many — 66 percent — oppose Texas-style laws prohibiting local mask mandates.

Even vaccine mandates had majority support in the Axios-Ipsos poll, with 55 percent of adults saying they would support their employers requiring vaccinations. Separately, a poll from the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released Friday also found majority support for vaccine mandates to attend “crowded public events,” eat at restaurants, or fly.

Such measures haven’t yet become widespread in the US — only 16 percent of adults told Axios and Ipsos that their workplaces require them to get vaccinated, for example — but there are signs they are picking up momentum.

Already, Biden has said that civilian federal employees must either be vaccinated or submit to frequent Covid tests, and the Pentagon is expected to require service members to get vaccinated starting next month, if not sooner.

Several states, including California, New York and Washington, also put similar requirements in place for state employees, and California, Oregon, and Washington all imposed a new vaccine mandate on teachers this month.

“This virus is increasingly impacting young people, and those under the age of 12 still can’t get the vaccine for themselves,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said at a news conference on Wednesday. “We won’t gamble with the health of our children, our educators and school staff, nor the health of the communities they serve.”

Cases and vaccinations are both on the rise

As vaccine mandates begin to gain traction in the US, the country is also reporting the highest number of new infections and hospitalizations since February 2021.

This week, the US reported more than 1 million cases in a seven-day stretch for the first time since February 2, according to CNN’s Ryan Struyk, and the rolling seven-day case average has reached 150,000 new cases per day as of August 21.

The South has been particularly hard-hit, with Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee reporting more new cases per 100,000 people than any other state, and the surge has been fueled by the delta variant, which now makes up about 98 percent of all Covid cases in the US, according to the CDC.

The severity of the outbreak, however, may also be boosting vaccine uptake in the US: According to White House Covid-19 data director Cyrus Shahpar, the US administered more than 1 million shots for the third day in a row on Saturday, the first time it has done so in more than two months.

There’s also more good news coming on the vaccination front: The Food and Drug Administration is set to issue a full approval for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as early as Monday, more than eight months after it was first approved for use under an emergency use authorization.

According to the New York Times, “the approval is expected to pave the way for a series of vaccination requirements by public and private organizations who were awaiting final regulatory action before putting in effect mandates,” including the Pentagon.

It could also be a boon for vaccine confidence in the US: About three in 10 unvaccinated people, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, say they would be “more likely to get vaccinated if the FDA moved vaccines from emergency use to full approval.”

The Pfizer vaccine is by far the most common in the US: More than 204 million doses have been administered, according to the CDC, versus 143 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and just 14 million of the Johnson & Johnson shot, as of August 21.

Vaccinations for children under 12 could be coming soon

In addition to being the first Covid-19 vaccine to receive an EUA and (likely) the first to receive full FDA approval, the Pfizer vaccine could also be the first shot authorized for children younger than 12.

Clinical trials for both mRNA vaccines — Moderna and Pfizer — are currently underway in the US, and Pfizer’s chief scientific officer for viral vaccines, Dr. Phil Dormitzer, told NPR this week that “we’re hoping to have authorization” for children ages 5 through 11 “not too long after the school year starts,” with an EUA for children younger than 5 coming shortly after that.

An EUA could make a big difference as the pandemic wears on, especially as school starts up again. The US reported a record 1,902 children hospitalized from Covid-19 last week, according to Reuters, and high levels of Covid-19 transmission throughout the country mean that the unvaccinated — including young children — are particularly vulnerable.

From August 5 through August 12, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the US reported 121,427 Covid-19 cases among children, or about 18 percent of the total number of US cases over that span.

With a vaccine authorization likely still weeks or months away, however, officials are urging adults and teenagers who are still unvaccinated to get their shot — to protect themselves, and their community.

“When you decide to get a vaccine, you’re protecting a kid out there who can’t get it,” Inslee said Wednesday.

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