GOP governors, school districts battle over mask mandates as pediatric hospitals fill

Millions of students in Florida, Texas and Arizona are now required to wear masks in class as school boards in mostly Democratic areas defied their Republican governors and mandated face coverings.

The three states are all hot spots in the nation’s recent COVID-19 wave, with challenging boards in Miami, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and other metro areas claim requiring masks to protect students, faculty and staff from contracting and spreading. of the virus, as many pediatric hospitals fill.

The districts often cite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends that teachers, staff, and students all wear masks regardless of whether or not they have been vaccinated.

“This thing (the virus) is not playing with us,” Marcia Andrews, a school board member for Palm Beach County, Florida, said this week as it approved a mask mandate, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I don’t want to see a child die.”

The governors claim that wearing masks stifles learning and does little to stop the spread of the virus, but children rarely become seriously ill from the disease. They say mandates violate parents’ rights to determine how best to protect their children.

“Texans, not the government, should decide their best health practices, which is why masks will not be mandated by public school districts or government agencies,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott said when he banned local mask mandates.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, in a July executive order banning masks, cited a Brown University study that examined schools in New York, Florida and Massachusetts. He said it showed masks made little difference in schools, but it had a caveat he doesn’t quote: It analyzed cases associated with schools, not cases spreading in schools.

One of the study’s authors, Brown economist Emily Oster, recently said she was not consulted by the governor and that the study is based on data from before the emergence of the more contagious delta variant. She supports masks in schools.

dr. Jessica Snowden, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, said masks have been proven to reduce the spread of the virus among children when worn consistently. She said the delta variant infects children more often and makes them sicker than last year’s variants, adding that masks don’t hinder learning.

“There is a lot of evidence that supports masking and there is no evidence that it does any harm,” she said. “Children adapt much better than adults.”

Florida and Texas make up 15% of the U.S. population but 28% of recent COVID-19 cases, according to the CDC, and both states have seen their hospitalization rates skyrocket in the past two months. Cases of COVID-19 in Arizona have increased sixfold since June.

Mask rules in public schools in the US vary widely. Eleven states require masks, including California, Illinois, Louisiana and Kentucky, while Florida, Texas and five other states prohibit mandates: Utah, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa and South Carolina. The Arizona ban goes into effect on September 29. The other states leave the decision to local officials.

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey this week banned districts that require masks from accessing a $163 million virus aid pool and said parents could receive $7,000 per student for private schools if their district mandates masks or goes into quarantine. More than two dozen counties, accounting for a third of the state’s 930,000 public school students, require masks.

“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged — mandates that put more stress on students and families are not,” Ducey said in a statement.

Save Our Schools, an Arizona group that has successfully revoked a statewide voucher program, said Ducey is trying to use COVID-19 to restore public funding to private schools.

“We are ready to fight the abhorrent policies,” the group said in a statement.

In Texas, the state’s largest districts, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, all defy Abbott and require masks. Abbott, who recently tested positive for the virus, is fighting the districts in court, but they are not flinching. The Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the districts can demand masks until the legal battle is decided.

“We are continuing our mask mandate to keep students safe, to protect parents, to protect families and most importantly, our teachers,” said Dallas school principal Michael Hinojosa.

In Florida, where the battle is particularly fierce, DeSantis and the state board of education, which he appoints, have threatened to cut money in districts that impose mandates that don’t offer parents an easy opt-out. The state also allows students who feel bullied into wearing a mask to apply for a private school voucher.

“Forcing young children to wear masks all day, these toddlers, with the government forcing them, doesn’t defy me; that is against the laws of the state of Florida,” DeSantis said this week. “This is not something we make up.”

But four of Florida’s five largest school districts — Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties — and midsize Alachua, home to the University of Florida, have taken on mask mandates with exceptions only with a doctor’s approval. They represent more than a third of the state’s 2.8 million public school students.

Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth-largest district with 341,000 students, took on its mask mandate on Wednesday, hours after Superintendent Albert Carvalho told the state council the district would not back down.

“For the consequences associated with doing the right thing, whatever that right thing is, I will wear a badge of honor with pride,” Carvalho said, according to The Miami Herald.

DeSantis has accused the defiant boards of playing politics.

The five Florida districts that have imposed strong mask mandates are all Democratic strongholds that supported President Joe Biden in the November election, even when former President Donald Trump carried the state. Biden recently told districts that the federal government would replace any funds the state cuts because of mandates.

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