Sep 1, 2021 - Podcasts

Federal intervention in the school masking debate

The ongoing battle among local, state and federal officials over COVID precautions in schools continues. The U.S. Department of Education has now launched a civil rights investigation into five GOP-led states that have banned mask mandates in schools.

  • Plus, the return of evictions in America.
  • And, Amazon steps into the live audio business.

Guests: Axios' Ben Montgomery, Linh Ta, Felix Salmon and Sara Fischer.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Hope King, 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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HOPE KING: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Wednesday, September 1st. I’m Hope King, filling in for Niala Boodhoo. Here’s what we’re watching today: the return of evictions in America. Plus, Amazon is the latest to step into the live audio business. But first, federal intervention in the school masking today’s One Big Thing.

The ongoing battle among local, state, and federal officials over Covid precautions in schools continues. The U.S. Department of Education has now launched a civil rights investigation into five GOP-led states which have banned mask mandates.

This morning, we're zooming in on Iowa, one of the states under investigation, as well as Florida, which was able to avoid the federal probe. Linh Ta writes the Axios Des Moines newsletter and Ben Montgomery writes the Axios Tampa Bay newsletter. Good morning, Linh and Ben.

LINH TA: Good morning.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Good morning.

HOPE: Ben, let's start with Florida - some schools are starting to put mandatory mask policies in place. So what's causing this change?

BEN: As you know, the state of Florida put in place a law and the governor issued an executive order several months ago banning school districts from making masks mandatory in schools. But 10 school districts representing more than 53% of all students in the state of Florida openly defied the governor's orders by putting in place their own mask mandates. And this all changed Friday of last week when a judge struck down the governor's order and essentially made it easier for school districts to put in place mask mandates.

HOPE: Are you expecting more schools to take advantage of this precedent and follow suit?

BEN: Oh, absolutely. We've already seen a handful of school districts that have called emergency meetings in the wake of the judge's ruling late last week. So I expect a number of those school districts that have been hesitant so far to enact mask mandates for fear that the school boards would lose part of their salary - They are rushing to rectify that and to try to control the Covid outbreak in Florida.

HOPE: How is the state of Florida avoiding an investigation by the Department of Education?

BEN: Well, what we know is that the department said when they announced the investigation that states like Florida, that have either not enforced their ban on mask mandates or those bans on mask mandates have been overturned in the courts, those states wouldn't be investigated and that includes Texas, Florida, Arizona. So that's the only reason so far as I know that Florida is not being investigated by the Department ofEducation.

HOPE: Linh, I want to move it over to you. Iowa is one of the states under investigation. What is the reasoning there?

LINH: Yeah, so this is going to be one of the Biden administration's first big federal interventions when it comes to Covid mitigation. The federal government is launching an investigation into Iowa because they are saying that it could possibly discriminate against students who may have underlying medical conditions or who may have a disability and doesn't provide them equal access to be able to go to classes in person.

HOPE: How is that playing out in schools in Des Moines?

LINH: Yeah, so most of the school districts here haven't defied the law. Instead of Florida where it's an executive order, here it is a law. And so there's some penalization that could happen such as losing your accreditation. School districts have certainly spoken out against the law saying that they're taking away the local rights and jurisdictions of school boards who want to mandate masks.

We had a mom recently file a lawsuit against the state saying that the ban on masks in schools discriminates against her kids who have underlying medical conditions. But I think it will be interesting to see, especially as we're, you know, all kind of having this weird power struggle at the moment regarding masks who's really hurt by this and how much jurisdiction does the state really have oversight?

HOPE: Linh Ta writes the Axios Des Moines newsletter and Ben Montgomery writes the Axios Tampa Bay newsletter. Thank you so much, Linh and Ben.

LINH: Thank you.

BEN: Thanks very much.


HOPE: We’ll be back in 15 seconds with an update on the risk of evictions across the country.


HOPE: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Hope King, in for Niala Boodhoo. For the first time since March 2020, most American renters can be evicted, with the federal eviction ban now over and the last few state protections set to end this month. It’s really hard to know how many people this could affect, but the Census Bureau estimates 4.7 million adults live in households where eviction is at least somewhat likely in the next two months. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs estimates 750,000 households could face eviction by the end of the year. Axios’ chief financial correspondent Felix Salmon is with me for more. Hi Felix.


HOPE: So we talked on the show a few months ago about how maybe fewer Americans than many had thought would actually lose their homes this year. Has that assessment changed?

FELIX: Yes. The Supreme Court case, I think, came as a bit of a surprise. They basically said the CDC is not allowed to continue this eviction moratorium that they had. And so now there is no eviction moratorium. There’s still a legal process that any landlord has to go through in order to evict you. And states have slow processes, the courts are overwhelmed. It'll still take a while before people start getting evicted, but it is now legally possible in a way that it wasn't just a week ago.

HOPE: What government protections do still exist for people in more precarious housing situations right now?

FELIX: It's changing rapidly. You know, the New York State Legislature is coming back to try and pass new rules, extending protections now that the federal protections aren't there anymore. I think other states are going to do similar things. I think it is just going to be much more case by case than it used to be. It used to be like this big federal blanket ban. And now it's just going to be, you're going to have to talk to your lawyers who are going to have to also really work hard to try and work out whether you can access some of the federal funds which have been earmarked for helping out renters. The crazy thing is there's probably more money earmarked for helping out renters than there is rent areas, but you just-it's just very difficult to match those two.

HOPE: Axios’ chief financial correspondent, Felix Salmon. Thank you so much.

FELIX: Thanks Hope.

HOPE: Clubhouse, a live audio-based social network, took off during the pandemic. Spotify and Facebook have launched their own versions. And it seems now that Amazon is following suit, but with the focus on live music and maybe even talk radio Axios’ Sara Fischer got the scoop, hi Sara.


HOPE: What have you learned about what this platform might look and sound like?

SARA: Well for one, it's going to be housed within Amazon's music division. Now that matters because Amazon's music division has been at the helm of all of its audio efforts, including podcasting. The other thing that signals is that it might not be as much of a social network, which is really what Clubhouse is, what Twitter Spaces is, as much as it is something that's a platform for concerts or any other types of remote, live audio feature involving music, performances, et cetera. So think about this more like radio than it is social media.

HOPE: Speaking of radio, you've written about how the radio business model has collapsed during the streaming era, but maybe the radio format is still popular. Is Amazon getting the best of both worlds?

SARA: Absolutely. People love live radio. They love live talk programs. But the problem is, Hope, they don't want to tune into something with lots of commercials. They want to get it on demand. And so that's sort of what Amazon is getting at here. Amazon has a lot of smart speaker dominance. They have a virtual voice assistant called Alexa. And think about this as an opportunity to feed content to those products. They're going to give people the ability to listen to radio-like programming, but in a digital format.

HOPE: Sara Fischer is Axios’ media reporter and she writes the Axios Media Trends newsletter. Thanks for being with us, Sara.

SARA: Thank you, Hope.

HOPE: One last thing before we go. President Biden addressed the nation yesterday -- one day after the U.S. completed its evacuation from Afghanistan.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The fundamental obligation of a president in my opinion, is to defend and protect America, not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan.

HOPE: Threats and challenges before us, said Biden, include those from Russia and China, cyberattacks, and terrorism from places including Syria, Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

And that’s all we’ve got for you today! You can reach our team at podcasts at axios dot com or reach out to me on twitter. I’m Hope King in for Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.


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