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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

Updated Oct 19, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Mix-and-matching gains momentum — Boosters overtake first doses in U.S. — Pfizer to vaccinate Brazilian cityPanel endorses J&J booster.
  2. Health: Age is still a huge coronavirus risk factor — Unvaccinated 11x more likely to die from COVID — 5x more police officers died from COVID than guns.
  3. Politics: Over 30 states limited public health powers — Pope Francis calls on companies to release vaccine patents — Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders.
  4. Education: Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations — Parent sues Wisconsin school district after child tests positive.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.

GE to mandate COVID vaccinations for U.S. workers

Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

General Electric will require all of its workers in the U.S. to be vaccinated against COVID-19, citing President Biden's executive order for federal contractors, the company confirmed to Axios on Tuesday.

Why it matters: General Electric is the latest in a slew of major companies to mandate the vaccine for workers, following in the footsteps of American Airlines, Tyson Foods and Microsoft, among others.

Oct 19, 2021 - Health

Supreme Court declines to block Maine health care workers vaccine mandate

A Maine health care worker prepares vaccine dose. Photo: Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear an emergency appeal of a vaccine mandate for Maine health care workers.

The big picture: The mandate, which was announced in August by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, says that Maine health care workers need to be vaccinated by Oct. 29 or risk losing their jobs and not qualifying for unemployment benefits.