Aug 13, 2021 - Podcasts

Schools vs. governors on mask mandates

Florida’s COVID-19 rates are worse than they have ever been. The state now makes up almost 20% of the entire caseload in the country. Meanwhile, in Texas, there were just 368 ICU beds available across the state as of Tuesday. These two states — and their schools — are heated battlegrounds over public health mandates and the way forward.

  • Plus, Afghanistan’s security situation collapses.
  • And, a Palestinian-American sprinter on her unlikely Olympic journey.

Guests: Axios' Mike Allen, Oriana González and Glen Johnson; Olympic sprinter Hanna Barakat

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Dan Bobkoff, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Sabeena Singhani, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Friday, August 13th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what we’re following today: Afghanistan’s security situation collapses. Plus, a Palestinian-American sprinter on her unlikely Olympic journey. But first, today’s One Big Thing: schools vs governors on mask mandates.

Florida's COVID rates are way worse than they've ever been. The state now makes up almost 20% of the entire American caseload. Meanwhile, in Texas, as of Tuesday, there were just 368 ICU beds available across the state. Both of these states, especially when it comes to schools, are also the latest battleground for public health mandates here to catch us up on this is Axios’ Oriana González and co-founder Mike Allen. Good morning, Oriana and Mike.


MIKE ALLEN: Good morning, Niala.

NIALA: What are governors Abbott and DeSantis saying about why they don't want mask or vaccine mandates?

ORIANA: So both governors issued executive orders that effectively prohibit local officials from requiring masks in schools. Abbott argued, and I'm quoting, that “Texans, not the government, should decide their best health practices” and added that they needed to protect what he says it’s “Texans liberty” to choose whether or not they should put a mask on. DeSantis, on the other hand, issued his executive order saying that it is parents who need to make the decision on whether their children should wear masks.

NIALA: How are schools responding to this?

ORIANA: So many local school districts in Texas and Florida, have defied the orders and mandated masks for students and staff, including teachers. The districts have cited the surge in cases due to the Delta variant, as the reason why masks are so essential in an environment where a lot of kids are still not able to get the vaccine. In Florida, DeSantis is facing lawsuits from parents who are against the mask ban. And in Texas, local governments have moved to defy Abbott and mandate masks. And Abbott has responded that everyone disobeying the order will be taken to court.

NIALA: And what has DeSantis’ response been?

ORIANA: So DeSantis hasn't responded to the lawsuits themselves. He has threatened superintendents saying that he will withhold funding if school districts defy his executive order.

NIALA: Mike, can you please give us the big picture here? What's the strategy for DeSantis and Abbott?

MIKE: Yeah Niala, some of it may be practical. Some of it may be political. Whatever the reasons are, this is incredible to watch. It's hard enough to be a teacher. It's hard enough to be a parent. Like the fact that on the doorstep of back-to-school that these fights are going on. The video that we've seen of some of the fights, uh, over these issues. Incredible.

NIALA: And we've also seen President Biden weigh in on that. I wonder how that changes the dynamics of this situation.

MIKE: Well, it seems to be a straight up preview of what we may be getting for 2024, right? The possibility of a DeSantis versus Biden contest is very real. You've seen them take little shots at each other. And so that's just yet another lens at a time when so many people are just trying to go back to school.

NIALA: Axios’ Mike Allen and Oriana González. Thank you both.

MIKE: Niala, have the best weekend.

ORIANA: Thank you. Niala.

NIALA: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with the U.S. evacuation of the American embassy in Kabul.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Yesterday the U.S. announced it would send troops to partially evacuate its embassy in Kabul, as the Taliban continues to quickly seize cities in Afghanistan. Axios’ Glen Johnson has spent time at the Kabul embassy and knows the challenges embassy personnel and State Department are facing. So he sent us his thoughts on what this all means.

GLEN JOHNSON: The Biden administration is obviously concerned, seeing provincial capitals around the capital of Kabul fall, and now they want to get everybody in one place so they can make a rapid evacuation if the Taliban advance on the city and the Afghan government decides to flee for its own life. Every time we traveled to Afghanistan, it was a hair-raising experience. It was one of the few places in the world that we couldn't tell our families we were going to in advance. Rather, we could only tell them after we'd already gotten there. When we would land at Kabul’s airport, there weren't vans waiting to take us between the airport and the embassy. Instead, there was a fleet of helicopters ready to fly us from point-to-point, it was simply too dangerous to diverse the city streets. Now we're seeing that the U.S. government has decided that it's even unsafe to leave too many people at the embassy. And so they're consolidating them at the airport. That allows several things. The troops that are being brought in are able to defend that area much more easily. Obviously there's already access to an airfield where transport plans can come and go. And so now the decision is going to be who leaves and when. Most likely the troops are going to come in on planes and the embassy personnel and other people that we want to support are going to go out on the empty planes.

NIALA: Axios' politics editor, Glen Johnson.

Almost 12,000 athletes headed home from the Tokyo Olympics this week. So we wanted to end today’s podcast by talking to one of them: 21-year-old Olympic sprinter Hanna Barakat. She's Palestinian-American and chose to compete for Team Palestine.

HANNA BARAKAT: So I am from Anabta, which is a small village outside of Tulkarm in Palestine. My dad was born there, but I was born in sunny Los Angeles, California. And from a very young age, I dreamed of going to the Olympics.

NIALA: Here's Hanna when she was 10.

HANNA AGE TEN: And in 10 years, I imagine myself in the Olympics for track and field.

HANNA: I found that there weren't that many sprinters, more or less female sprinters, competing for Palestine. And I had this origin of a dream, [laughs] which would be running for Palestine. And fulfilling that part of my identity that, as so many Palestinians in the diaspora struggle with, connecting to the homeland, and track became a way that I was able to do that.

NIALA: Fulfilling that dream started - if you can believe it - with an Instagram message to the Palestinian Athletic Federation, who then welcomed her to compete for Palestine at the Arab Athletics Championships in Tunisia.

HANNA: I ran against 22 other Arab nations, and set the national record for Palestine in the 200 and 400.

NIALA: And then, just 21 days before the Olympics started, they invited her to join their team. Something that held a lot of meaning for her family.

HANNA: My dad was actually in the 1984 Olympics as a field hockey player for the United States. My grandfather…[Arabic]... he passed away last summer. And he was my dad's biggest fan. My dad has this great story of him buying a giant car, a white Chevrolet, and putting an American flag and an Olympic flag on the front of the car and driving it around. And so I think it was all so...very emotional for him to hear and see the Olympic triumphs that I was about to embark upon and think about how my sido (Arabic colloquialism for grandfather) would have been so proud to have seen another Olympian in his family.

NIALA: Hanna's training was complicated when she contracted COVID prior to the Olympics.

HANNA: It was an uphill battle, I will say. I'm so grateful to have a healthy recovery and have a little bit of dizziness here and there, but for the most part, I've been able to fully recover. And I think it helped me build up a intense mental preparation going into Tokyo 2020. My coach always says track and field, particularly sprinting, is 99.9% mental, and it's crazy to travel, you know, 13 hours to run 11 seconds. But I did have a moment at the end of the 100 where... I had this feeling that I did not want the race to end. A quick moment of... almost longing for the race to be a few seconds longer. And I had not experienced that prior in a race before.

NIALA: Hanna told me the Palestinian community across the globe have been celebrating her running with her.

HANNA: It's so overwhelming. I have friends and family in various places around the world and hearing about villages gathering around a TV and watching the race really touched my heart. I have some friends in Tulkarm refugee camp who all watched as well, and they sent me videos. So it was definitely heartwarming to receive those words of support.

NIALA: Thanks to Olympic sprinter Hanna Barakat for sharing her story -- now, she's preparing to start her senior year at Brown University this fall.

Before we say goodbye for this week, a thanks to the many of you who have been sending us story ideas and feedback about the show via text. Our number -- where you can reach me directly -- is (202) 918-4893. Say hi, and let us know what stories you’d like to see us cover.

Axios Today is brought to you by Axios and Pushkin Industries. We’re produced by Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, and Sabeena Singhani. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura and Ben O’Brien. Dan Bobkoff is our Executive Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is our Executive Editor. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening - stay safe - and have a great weekend.

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