Aug 11, 2021 - Health

The school districts defying Texas, Florida governors and mandating masks

Illustration of a school crossing sign wearing a mask.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Several school districts in Florida and at least two in Texas have a message for their governors: Masks for teachers and students are a must, even if it means defying orders.

Driving the news: As students head back to the classroom, health experts across the country are sounding the alarm on the increasing impact of COVID-19 on children, prompting debate — and, at times, threats of funding cuts — over whether masks should be required in schools.

  • It comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance last month recommending universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to K-12 schools this incoming school year, regardless of vaccination status.

State of play: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) have each issued orders that effectively prohibit local officials from requiring masks in schools.

In Florida, DeSantis and state officials have gone as far as not only threatening funding cuts but also withholding pay from superintendents and school board members who issue mask mandates.

  • DeSantis maintains it should be up to parents to decide whether their child wears a mask, saying the CDC's guidance "lacks well-grounded scientific justification."
  • But school districts in Alachua, Broward, Hillsborough and Leon counties have defied the DeSantis order, mandating students and teachers wear masks for at least the beginning of the school year.
  • "The Florida Constitution says the state has a 'paramount duty' to provide safe and high-quality public schools. ... I value life too much to take chances with the lives of others, even under the threat of retaliation," Alachua County Public Schools superintendent Carlee Simon wrote in the Washington Post.

In Texas, Abbott, like DeSantis, says it should be up to an individual to decide whether to wear a mask. “Going forward, in Texas, there will not be any government-imposed shutdowns or mask mandates,” he said last week.

  • But as COVID cases surge in the state, the Dallas and Austin independent school districts each recently announced masks will be required inside schools.
  • “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19," said Ben Mackey, Dallas ISD's board president, per the Dallas Morning News.
  • The district added that "students under 12 are not eligible for a vaccine, however, school attendance is mandatory, and virtual learning is not an option at this time."

The governors' orders in both states are facing legal challenges.

  • Two district judges in Texas gave local officials in Dallas and Bexar counties the temporary authority to issue mask mandates for their school districts, per the Texas Tribune.
  • Following the rulings, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins signed an emergency order on Wednesday requiring mask use in schools, businesses and county buildings.
  • Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton then announced the filing of a petition to strike down an emergency order, adding that "any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy the order will be taken to court."

The big picture: Experts expect coronavirus cases to surge among children and adults in the next two weeks as school classes start, particularly more in states where masks mandates have been banned.

  • Infections among Florida youths increased by 34% and hospitalizations were up 23% between July 16 and 24.
  • Children's hospitals in northern Texas are also seeing an increase in COVID patients. Only two pediatric ICU beds of more than 280 were available in the North Texas area on Tuesday, per the Dallas Morning News.

The bottom line: NIAID director Anthony Fauci said this week that the best way to protect children in schools is to wear a mask.

  • "We know how that can be uncomfortable. But you'd rather have a somewhat uncomfortable situation with a well child than temporarily comfortable and a child in the ICU," Fauci said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," adding that he also supports vaccine mandates for teachers.
  • President Biden on Tuesday took a shot at governors restricting school districts' abilities to issue mandates. "I find that totally counterintuitive and, quite frankly, disingenuous,” he said, per Politico.

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Editor's note: This story has been updated with Abbott and Paxton's announcement.

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