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Illustration: Rae Cook/Axios

Conflicting policies, fiery political debates and the continued spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 are sowing chaos and uncertainty into the back-to-school season.

Why it matters: This will be the third school year in a row with COVID-related disruptions. Many students have already suffered severe learning loss, and the gap between students could grow even wider, thanks to disparities in vaccinations and rising case counts.

What they're saying: "The outlook right now is too similar to what we went through last year," Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, tells Axios' Erica Pandey.

  • "It's sad because it's so controllable," he says. "We know what works. We can get our kids in school in person if we can get the older ones vaccinated and the younger ones masked."

What's happening: Mask mandates for students aren't universal, but they're pretty common. Florida, Arizona, Texas and South Carolina are among the states that have banned mask mandates, though some districts are defying those orders.

  • And one Florida district that didn't require masks has already had to quarantine 440 students — just two days into the school year.

Here's a snapshot of what's unfolding in local communities:

Chicago

Chicago Public Schools, the nation's third-largest district, officially starts up on Aug. 30, and masks will be mandatory indoors, Axios' Monica Eng reports.

  • Last week, officials announced that vaccines would be required for all staff (except those with health exemptions), but the Chicago Teachers Union says they need more access to vaccines.
  • Students are not required to be vaccinated.
  • Schools will be in-person for now, but as cases rise, some parents are petitioning for a remote option.
Columbus

Ohio school districts are left to decide their own safety policies for the upcoming school year, as the statewide case count rises to its highest level since last winter, writes Axios' Tyler Buchanan.

  • Columbus City Schools will require masks in all buildings, regardless of vaccination status. But a handful of nearby districts will begin the school year without any mask requirement.
D.C.

Nearly all of Washington, D.C.'s 51,000 public school students will return to the classroom in person starting on Aug. 30, Axios' Cuneyt Dil and Paige Hopkins report.

  • Virtual learning is only open to students with a doctor's note documenting their medical need for distanced learning — and only 98 children have been approved so far.
  • Masks are required for everybody. Employees must either get vaccinated or undergo weekly testing.

Yes, but: More than 600 people have signed an online petition urging D.C. to allow virtual learning until vaccines are available to children under 12.

Denver

Gov. Jared Polis has rebuffed calls for a statewide mask mandate, but says he may shift his stance if schools are plagued with outbreaks and cannot remain open, writes Axios' John Frank.

  • The governor's decision to punt the responsibility to local districts means a messy patchwork of policies at the start of the school year that seemingly changes by the day.
  • Denver Public Schools, which returns next week, took the strictest stance, requiring all students, teachers and staff to wear masks and forcing all staff to get vaccinated.
Des Moines

Des Moines Public Schools will not mandate masks or vaccines for staff or students when classes begin Aug. 25 because of a recent state law that prohibits it from doing so, Axios' Jason Clayworth reports.

  • Des Moines Superintendent Tom Ahart said Thursday he supports defying the law if the school board approves a mask mandate, the Des Moines Register reports.

There is no threshold for how big many absences would cause a school to close because of a COVID-19 outbreak.

  • Virtual options are available to K–12 students.
Nashville

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee largely left local governments to craft their own response to the COVID-19 pandemic but has limited their options on mask mandates, Axios' Nate Rau and Adam Tamburin write.

Northwest Arkansas

Local school districts have been scrambling to decide what their policies can and should be after a judge temporarily blocked a state law that bans public entities from requiring masks, Axios' Alex Golden reports.

  • The state's four largest school districts — Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville — will all require masks for at least some students for now.
Tampa Bay

Facing record-shattering COVID-19 spikes, three of the nation's largest school districts — Florida's Hillsborough, Broward and Miami-Dade — have defied Gov. Ron DeSantis and made masks mandatory, Axios' Ben Montgomery reports.

What's new: School board meetings have become the stage for this debate. One in Tampa lasted four hours and featured a parade of emotional people trying to shoehorn elaborate political philosophy into one-minute speaking slots.

  • Anti-mask moms wore T-shirts that said "Freedom Over Fear" and called masks "tyranny" and "oppression" — while a pediatric nurse called this a "pandemic of sincere ignorance."
Twin Cities

With no statewide policy in place, Minnesota parents are navigating a variety of mask rules based on their child's district, Axios' Torey Van Oot writes.

  • Schools in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Rochester will require face coverings for students and teachers when classes resume next month. But the state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin in the Twin Cities suburbs, will recommend, but not mandate, masks.
  • Even in places with mask mandates, parents are stressed ahead of the fall semester.
  • Lindsey Wollschlager said she's "relieved" that St. Paul Public Schools will require masks when her 5-year-old daughter starts kindergarten in September.

Yes, but: "She has no excitement about kindergarten. Only dread," Wollschlager said of her daughter.

Go deeper

Oct 16, 2021 - Health

Pope Francis calls on companies to release COVID vaccine patents

Pope Francis. Photo: Massimo Valicchia/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pope Francis called on pharmaceutical companies on Saturday to release patents to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible to the poor, Reuters reports.

Why it matters: There is a stark divide between countries that have access to COVID-19 shots and those that don't, and the gap has widened as some wealthier countries have begun distributing third doses.

Updated Oct 14, 2021 - Axios Events

Watch: A conversation on equal opportunity in education

On October 14th, Axios race and justice reporter Russ Contreras discussed how education systems are preparing their students for equal opportunity and sustained success in life after school, featuring Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D-N.M.) and California State University Chancellor Joseph I. Castro.

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández demonstrated how the federal government can aid states in addressing education inequalities, the difficulties of recruiting teachers in rural areas, and her focus on alleviating poverty to give children better educational opportunities.

  • On the importance of hiring teachers who can relate to students on a community and cultural level: “We need to make sure that we are training teachers that come from the community that reflect the children that they are teaching, because then that’s where the aspiration starts.”
  • On improving infrastructure to support greater broadband access: “Creating that infrastructure in those communities so there’s good broadband, so they can stay connected to the world, so they can assign subjects and projects that require that students plug into the internet and gather information. That’s the broadband work that we need to do.”

Joseph I. Castro discussed how a counselor at a college fair opened up his eyes to educational opportunity, how student services play a central role in education equity, and how public universities are working to eliminate inequities for students.

  • On investing in student services: “I believe that we need to invest in our students. They are the next generation of leaders. In order for us to support them, we of course need to have extraordinary faculty members in the classroom...and we need to make sure that they have food and housing, access to technology, all the tools necessary to be successful.”
  • On California State University’s plans for an Equity Innovation Hub: “It will be a place where Hispanic serving institutions, like 21 of our Cal State campuses, as well as hundreds across the country, will be able to work together to serve students from Latino and other backgrounds and help prepare them for STEM fields.”

Axios Chief People Officer Dominique Taylor hosted a View from the Top segment with Bank of America president of Business Banking Raul Anaya and Eduardo Díaz, Smithsonian Latino Center director and interim director of the National Museum of the American Latino. They discussed how race and racism have shaped the history of the U.S., and how these effects are still being felt in the Latino community.

  • Eduardo Díaz on the influence behind Smithsonian’s recent program “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past”: “With the murder of George Floyd, it was cathartic, it brought to bear a lot of underlying historical aspects of the way race and racism has shaped this country’s history and culture, and I think it was a pivotal moment when the Smithsonian needed to do something and step forward to address it…”

Judge orders police union boss not to comment on Chicago's vaccine mandate

Chicago police officers arrive at the Fraternal Order of Police building on Oct. 13. Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A judge on Friday issued a temporary restraining order against the Chicago police union president, barring him from making statements discouraging members from reporting their COVID-19 vaccine status to the city, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The big picture: The order came just hours before the deadline for Chicago city employees to report their vaccination status, but city officials said it would take days for them to determine who got shots and who did not, according to ABC 7 Chicago.