Republican governors in Texas and Florida have imposed bans on mask mandates despite a spike in COVID-19 infections among children, but that’s not stopping an increasing number of school districts from defying them.
In May, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning any sort of mask mandate, including in schools. In July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis did the same and threatened to withhold funds for schools that require masks for students.
The orders come while the states are epicenters of the new, highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, which has led to cases and hospitalizations rising to record-breaking levels.
Florida, for the 11th consecutive day Wednesday, broke its record for current COVID-19 hospitalizations at 15,449 ― accounting for 28% of all hospitalizations among the 232 hospitals reporting their data to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The state also saw 24,753 new cases on Wednesday, breaking a record for the third time this week.
Texas recorded an increase in new cases as well, with 14,214 newly confirmed cases and 3,684 new probable cases on Wednesday. As of Tuesday, there were at least 10,463 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Texas, taking up about 16% of total hospital beds.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask in indoor public spaces in “areas with substantial and high transmission,” which include schools. But DeSantis and Abbott maintain that their orders are meant to let parents make the decision on whether to have their children wear masks to school.
As the delta variant of the virus spreads across both states, along with the rest of the South, health officials have noticed a surge in severe infections among children ― an age group once considered to be less at risk of serious COVID-19 illnesses. And at a time when children younger than 12 are yet to be eligible for the vaccine, Abbott has said Texas won’t require schools to notify parents of COVID-19 cases.
“We saw 12 positive cases in June, then in the first week of July we saw more cases than the whole month of June. Now we are seeing about 100 cases a week,” Dr. Joseph Perno, vice president of medical affairs at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in Florida, told WFLA-TV on Wednesday. Perno, as well as other pediatricians, have expressed worry that the numbers will continue to rise as school begins.
Despite the two governors’ orders, school districts are fighting back in growing numbers and imposing mask mandates in defiance ― risking backlash from the state government in order to protect students from the deadly virus.
On Monday, the Dallas school district became the first in Texas to issue a mask mandate, declaring that Abbott’s order “does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students.” The Austin Independent School District, the second largest in the state, followed suit by requiring universal masking regardless of an individual’s age or vaccination status.
Since then, nearly two dozen school districts in Texas have decided to require masks for the new school year. After suing Abbott, Bexar County and its county seat of San Antonio won a court battle Tuesday to have the authority to mandate masks in public schools. Harris County, which includes Houston and has the state’s largest school district, is expected to sue Abbott for the same authority.
On Wednesday, the Texas Tribune reported that Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins signed an executive order requiring masks in schools and businesses. Hours later, Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced their plan to block Jenkins in court.
“This isn’t the first time we have dealt with activist characters. It’s deja vu all over again,” Paxton said in a statement. “Attention-grabbing judges and mayors have defied executive orders before, when the pandemic first started, and the courts ruled on our side ― the law. I’m confident the outcomes to any suits will side with liberty and individual choice, not mandates and government overreach.”
Abbott and Paxton’s response did not mention that their order is also a mandate and considered by many local institutions as government overreach.
DeSantis tried the same argument of “government overreach” when the White House hinted it could use federal funds to help Florida schools that decide to impose mask mandates. The governor’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s questions about whether he believed his own actions were government overreach with local institutions, an accusation he leveled at the federal government.
But just like in Texas, many school districts in Florida are defying DeSantis and requiring masks based on public health guidance, despite the governor’s threat to cut funding and withhold superintendents’ salaries. Nearly 10 districts have announced mask rules, though at least two of them have said parents can opt out without a doctor’s note. The school district in Leon County has urged DeSantis to allow a temporary mask mandate after four school-aged children in the district were admitted to hospitals and two pre-kindergarten teachers were admitted into intensive care.
Leaders at Broward County Public Schools are standing by their mask mandate after a brief suspension following DeSantis’s funding threat earlier this week. The district is still reviewing the governor’s mask mandate ban with “variants of coronavirus running rampant in our community,” School Board Chair Rosalind Good said in a video posted to the district’s website.
“At no point shall I allow my decision to be influenced by a threat to my paycheck,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who runs the fourth-largest school district in the nation, said Tuesday. “A small price to pay considering the gravity of this issue and the potential impact to the health and well-being of our students and dedicated employees.”