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The political battle over the pandemic has come to the classroom

As schools open and hospitalizations spike, Republican laws banning mask mandates face opposition from school districts

Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as they get on a bus to go home after their first day of school on Aug. 24, 2020.
Students at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in South Salt Lake wear masks as they get on a bus to go home after their first day of school on Aug. 24, 2020. As the delta variant of the novel coronavirus rages across the country and schools begin to reopen, the political fight over the pandemic has come to the classroom.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

As the delta variant of the novel coronavirus rages across the country and schools begin to reopen, the political fight over the pandemic has come to the classroom.

Republican efforts to outlaw mask mandates are facing new pressure from school districts, health officials and even the White House, but most Republican governors aren’t changing course, even as infections skyrocket among the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, Democratic governors who’ve pushed masking are seeing their own blowback.

It’s a showdown that comes with both public health and political costs, which could factor into the 2022 election.

Schools have begun reopening in Arizona, where mask mandates have been banned since March. The state’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey said he wouldn’t budge after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidelines last month to recommend fully vaccinated people also wear masks in parts of the country where infections are surging. Cases are up 89% and hospitalizations are up 51% in Arizona over the past 14 days, according to data from federal, state and local health agencies compiled by The New York Times.

“Arizona does not allow mask mandates, vaccine mandates, vaccine passports or discrimination in schools based on who is or isn’t vaccinated,” Ducey said in a statement. “We’ve passed all of this into law, and it will not change.”

Arizona’s Chandler Unified School District was among the earliest in the state to open, on July 21, and it announced over 140 cases in its first two weeks. The district does not require masking.

Other Arizona districts have bucked Ducey’s ban, though. So far, more than half a dozen districts, including Phoenix Union High School District and Tucson Unified School District, have announced they will require masks on their campuses. One Phoenix Union High School District science teacher is suing the district over the mandate, but the district said it’s requiring masks because every ZIP code it serves has a high or substantial spread.

“Campus health and safety is our top priority,” the district said in a statement ahead of reopening. “To do so, we must — and will — implement mitigation strategies that minimize spread, reduce quarantining, avoid school closures, and enable us to provide mental health services and engaging opportunities such as clubs, sports, and the arts.”

James Strickland, an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies, said it wouldn’t be a good look for Ducey if more schools in Arizona instituted mask bans.

“I do not know how the standoff may end but it’s a tricky situation for the governor, for sure,” Strickland said.

Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., shared this advice Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union:”

“Whenever politicians mess with public health, usually it doesn’t work out well for public health and ultimately it doesn’t work out well for the politician.”

Schoolhouse vs. statehouse

The recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics is to prioritize in-person learning safely. Last month, the group urged vaccinations for all who are eligible and masks for everyone older than 2, regardless of vaccination status. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the vaccine, putting young children and their families at higher risk.

“The pandemic has taken a heartbreaking toll on children, and it’s not just their education that has suffered but their mental, emotional and physical health,” Sonja O’Leary, who chairs the academy’s Council on School Health, said in a statement. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

Red Republican majority states are particularly vulnerable to the delta variant right now because of their low vaccination rates. Nine of the 10 least-vaccinated states voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020, and 54% of Republicans say they’re vaccinated, compared with 86% of Democrats, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation COVID-19 vaccine monitor. The threat posed by a more contagious variant ripping through schools of unmasked and un- and under-vaccinated students fresh off summer vacation is real, and communities with low vaccination rates stand to suffer the most.

The battle between school districts and state government is also taking place in Florida, where a handful of districts are defying an executive order banning mask mandates issued last week by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. The order allows the state’s commissioner of education to withhold money from noncompliant schools, setting the stage for a showdown over public health and funding.

It comes as Florida faces a spike in infections that’s among the most severe in the country. On Monday, the Florida Hospital Association reported that hospitalizations in the state reached a record high, eclipsing hospitalization rates from last summer, before the vaccine was available.

Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., who’s running to replace DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election, has hammered the governor over his handling of the pandemic, suggesting the issue could be a political liability in next year’s midterm election. In a tweet about DeSantis’ recent trip to Utah, Crist said the governor was trashing mask-wearing and boosting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories as Florida hospitals filled up. Crist has also said he supports mask requirements for schools.

“I know the right thing to do is to have a mask requirement for our kids,” Crist said during a press conference Wednesday. “Let’s put them first instead of any other political consideration.”

Cassidy said Sunday on CNN that he disagrees with DeSantis and other governors who are banning mask mandates, because local officials should make their own decisions for their communities rather than follow “top down” decisions from Washington, D.C., or a governor.

“The local officials should have control here,” Cassidy said. “If a local community, if their ICU is full, and the people at the local schools see that they’ve got to make sure they stay open, because otherwise children miss out on another year of school, and they put in policy, then the local officials should be listened to.”

An anomaly in Arkansas

Unlike most of his fellow Republicans, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson has changed direction when it comes to mask. He said during a press conference Tuesday that he now regrets the mask mandate ban he signed in April when cases were at a much lower point.

“Everything has changed now,” Hutchinson said. “In hindsight, I wish that had not become law.”

On Friday, an Arkansas judge temporarily blocked the law from being enforced.

Democratic governors are taking a different approach, with states like Oregon and Illinois requiring masks in schools. The mandates haven’t come without pushback. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who faces a recall challenge in September spurred by pandemic politics, is being threatened with a possible lawsuit from the Orange County Board of Education over the state’s school masking requirement, and a school board meeting in San Ramon was shut down for five minutes Tuesday because of a protest.

Governors are now getting pressure from the White House, too. On Tuesday, President Joe Biden called on governors who have banned mask mandates to step aside.

“If some governors aren’t willing to do the right thing to beat this pandemic, then they should allow businesses and universities who want to do the right thing to be able to do it,” Biden said. “I say to these governors, please, help. But if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way of the people who are trying to do the right thing. Use your power to save lives.”

As of Aug. 6, 2021, COVID-19 has killed at least 615,408 Americans.