Florida, Texas schools defy governors’ bans on mask mandates as COVID cases soar

By Sharon Bernstein

(Reuters) – School districts in Florida and Texas are bucking their Republican governors’ bans on requiring masks for children and teachers as coronavirus cases soar in conservative areas with low vaccination rates.

The Broward County school board in Florida on Tuesday became the latest major district to flout an order by Republican Governor Rick DeSantis outlawing mask requirements in that state. The Dallas Independent School District said late Monday that it would also require masks, despite an order banning such mandates from Republican Governor Greg Abbott.

The acts of rebellion by school officials come as these states — along with Louisiana, Arkansas and others — are flooded with new cases after people resisted vaccines and mask mandates. Teachers and administrators are seeking to protect students, many of whom are under 12 years old and cannot get vaccinated.

Fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, U.S. cases and hospitalizations have soared to six-month highs with no flattening of the curve in sight.

Based on population, Florida, Louisiana and Arkansas are leading the nation with new cases and how many COVID patients fill their hospitals. Texas is not far behind.

In Arkansas, where only eight intensive care beds were available for COVID patients on Monday, Republican Governor Asa Hutchison said he regrets supporting a ban on mask mandates in his state.

In Florida, where nearly one out of every three hospital beds are occupied by a coronavirus patient, a surgeon in Orlando said hospitals in the area were “overflowing” with the unvaccinated.

“We need a field hospital. Please help us,” Sam Atallah, a surgeon at AdventHealth wrote on Twitter on Monday. “We are in a state of emergency in Orlando.”

In Dallas, where some staff had threatened to quit if masks were not mandated to protect children, teachers and others, school district officials said they did not believe the governor’s order should be applied to them. Schools in Austin also plan to require masks.

“Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and student,” the Dallas district said on its website.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county’s top executive, said late on Monday that he asked a district court to block Governor Greg Abbott’s July order that prevents local governments from implementing mask mandates.

“The enemy is not each other,” Jenkins said in a statement. “The enemy is the virus, and we must all do all that we can to protect public health.”

In Florida, where lawsuits have also been filed challenging the anti-mask order, DeSantis has threatened to withhold salaries from school district officials who flout his ban.

The threat prompted a response from the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat, which is considering reimbursing school officials who lose their pay if DeSantis follows through on his threat.

“We’re continuing to look into what our options are to help protect and help support these teachers and administrators who are taking steps to protect the people in their communities,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Tuesday.

DeSantis stood by his statewide order banning mask mandates on Tuesday, saying it would allow parents to decide whether to mask their children for class.

“It’s about parental choice, not government mandate, and I think ultimately, parents will be able to exercise the choices that they deem appropriate for their kids,” DeSantis said at a briefing.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento; Additional reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

New Jersey to require masks in schools as Delta variant spreads

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Kindergarten through 12th-grade students and staff in New Jersey will be required to wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status when public schools open in the fall, Governor Phil Murphy said on Friday, reversing his earlier position as the Delta variant of coronavirus spreads.

The change in guidance from just over a month ago reflects a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spurred by the highly contagious variant, Murphy told a news conference.

“There are issues that are and must always remain above politics, and this is one of them,” said Murphy, a Democrat who is the only incumbent U.S. governor up for re-election this fall.

Debate around masks in U.S. schools reignited last month when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed course and recommended that all students and staff wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status.

A patchwork of policies has emerged from state to state, and even town to town, around the issue that has become deeply political in the United States.

In New Jersey, COVID-19 cases rose 105% over the past two weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of public health data. Hospitalizations have spiked 92% in the past four weeks, the data shows.

About 67% of New Jersey residents have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. U.S. vaccination rates vary widely from a high of 76% of Vermont residents receiving a first dose to a low of 41% in Mississippi.

States with lower vaccination rates have been hardest hit by the fast-spreading variant.

Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi account for half of the country’s new cases and hospitalizations in the last week, White House officials said.

‘MORAL OUTRAGE’

In Florida, the Board of Education on Friday adopted an emergency rule that would allow parents to transfer their child to another school “when a student is subjected to harassment in response to a school district’s COVID-19 mitigation protocols,” including mask protocols.

The newly-approved rule lets parents transfer their kids to a private school or a school in another district under the Hope scholarship, funding that was originally created to allow Florida public school pupils who are victims of bulling to move to a different institution.

During the emergency meeting, one parent called the rule a “moral outrage” that equated a school’s mask mandate to harassment and bullying.

Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued an executive order last week blocking mask mandates in the state’s schools.

There were 13,427 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the Sunshine State as of Friday morning, a fresh record high, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Some Florida school districts are keeping mask mandates in place, at least for now, despite the governor’s executive order.

The Broward County Public School Board will meet on Tuesday to decide how to move forward following DeSantis’ order.

Rosalind Osgood, the board’s chairwoman, said she planned to vote to require masks for students and school staff in the county, telling CNN on Friday: “I’m not willing to take a risk with somebody’s life when we have a deadly pandemic.”

Some of the nation’s largest school districts including New York and Los Angeles have made masks mandatory for the upcoming school year.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani in New York and Anurag Maan in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell)

As Americans navigate conflicting COVID-19 mask advice, ‘everyone is confused’

By Joseph Ax and Tim Reid

PRINCETON, N.J./SANTA MONICA, Calif. (Reuters) – A COVID-19 surge ignited in parts of the United States by the highly contagious Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy has led to new mask mandates and deep confusion among some people about which guidance to follow.

In Los Angeles County, leaders have reinstated an indoor mask mandate, even for the fully vaccinated. Officials in Houston and New Orleans also raised coronavirus alert levels this week and told people to mask up.

In Florida, however, Governor Ron DeSantis said on Thursday children will not be required to wear masks in school there this fall, arguing that “we need our kids to breathe.” Hours later, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters: “If I were a parent in Florida, that would be greatly concerning to me.”

“Everyone is confused about what they should be doing,” said Daniel Blacksheare, a 20-year-old in Santa Monica, California, who said he was infected twice last year. “I don’t understand why we have to suddenly wear a mask again.”

The county sheriff in Los Angeles County said his department will not enforce the measure.

The conflicting advice from officials at city, county, state and federal levels of government comes as hospital officials in the harder-hit states with lower vaccination rates are sounding the alarm about their systems being overwhelmed.

The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in the United States is up 53% over the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The Delta variant makes up more than 80% of the new cases across the country.

Much of the guidance falls along the same political lines as earlier in the pandemic. Leaders in heavily Republican states generally eschew masks, and Democrats insist upon them.

Schools are a particular tension point nationwide. Children under age 12 are still not eligible for coronavirus vaccines, and many parents consider masks as the best remaining defense.

Yet as some areas return to the classroom in just a few weeks, there are wide divisions over whether children should be wearing masks in schools.

The American Academy of Pediatrics this week released updated recommendations for schools that included mask wearing for everyone over the age of 2, regardless of vaccination status. President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that unvaccinated children should wear masks in schools.

But the CDC on Thursday said it is not changing its mask guidance for schools, including that masks are only required for those over age 2 who have not been vaccinated. The CDC in May relaxed its guidance so that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks in most public spaces.

In Princeton, New Jersey, Ximena Skovron said she finds the dust-ups over masks and what the guidance actually is to be perplexing.

“I’m vaccinated, and the rules seem to change,” she said. “But it’s also inconsistent. You’ve got two grocery stores in town: one requires masks, one doesn’t.”

Skovron said she does not think states should reimpose mask mandates.

“Vaccines are readily available. The ability to protect yourself is there,” she said. “If you refuse, you should assume the risk instead of imposing on the rest of society.”

Her 6-year-old daughter will enter first grade this fall, and Skovron said she hopes the school does not require masks, citing the extremely low rate of serious COVID-19 incidence among small children.

“It just seems like such overkill for children to wear masks,” she said.

But Melissa Riccobono, 44, of Lawrenceville, New Jersey, said she is pro-mask and thinks there should be mandates when and where necessary.

“If you’re choosing not to vaccinate, that’s your choice, and I’m fine with that – but it’s not your choice whether to wear a mask,” she said.

(Reporting by Tim Reid in Santa Monica, California, and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas, and Carl O’Donnell in Washington; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Grant McCool)

COVID-19 mask mandates latest flashpoint for U.S. schools

By Sharon Bernstein and Colleen Jenkins

(Reuters) – Two days after the school board in Johnston, Iowa, decided last week to keep requiring mask wearing in schools to prevent coronavirus transmission, the state’s Republican governor signed a law that immediately prohibited such mandates.

The reaction in Johnston was swift and sharply divided, with some parents applauding the move to make masks optional for the waning days of the school year and others calling it dangerous given the continued threat from COVID-19.

“I just find it super disappointing and selfish,” said local parent Sara Parris, who is still sending her two sons to class with face coverings.

The debate over masks in schools is yet another flashpoint for U.S. educators grappling with how to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic. Friction around returning to in-person learning has given way to heated disagreements over whether masks should be shed for good.

Iowa and Texas have banned school districts from requiring kids to wear masks on campus. Similar moves are under consideration in other states and local jurisdictions, spurred in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saying on May 13 that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in most situations.

With children under age 12 not yet eligible for vaccinations, however, the CDC recommends face coverings in educational settings at least through the end of the school year. While children are less likely to suffer severe COVID-19, they are not without risk and can readily transmit the virus.

Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said on Twitter that her state was “putting parents back in control of their child’s education and protecting the rights of all Iowans to make their own health care decisions.”

Responding to the governor via Twitter, Democratic state Senator Sarah Trone Garriott said: “I’m hearing from lots of parents reporting that their children are being bullied for wearing a mask. Are you going to stand up for their personal choice?”

At the Johnston school board meeting last week, most parents spoke in favor of making masks optional, with one mother calling masking requirements for children abusive. Other parents emailed school officials asking for mask mandates to remain in place.

“It’s been difficult to try to find the right balance,” Justin Allen, president of the school board and a parent of two high school students, said in an interview.

“Just when you think you are in kind of a comfort zone and you think you can focus on education for awhile, something else emerges and you have another controversial issue to address.”

CDC STUDY BACKS MASKS

In North Carolina, parents opposed to mandatory face coverings staged a protest in Wake County after Democratic Governor Roy Cooper lifted mask requirements in some situations but not in schools.

“Parents should determine if their child should wear a mask, not school systems or the governor,” parent Nazach Snapp wrote in a letter to the Wake County school board.

Others urged the board to continue its mask requirement.

“Given that vaccines are not available yet for children under 12, I implore you to continue to require students in middle and elementary settings to wear masks,” wrote parent Mimosa Hines.

A study published by the CDC on Friday showed that in elementary schools that required masks, transmission of COVID-19 was lower by 37% than in schools where masks were optional. The study, which included 169 elementary schools in Georgia that were open for in-person instruction, also showed improved ventilation slowed virus transmission.

It advised increasing, not decreasing, the use of masks and ventilation in schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association, two unions that represent a total of about 5 million teachers and staff, have urged states to keep their mask requirements at least through the end of this school year.

While nearly 90% of AFT’s members have been vaccinated against COVID-19, many of their students have not.

U.S. regulators earlier this month authorized use of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer Inc and partner BioNTech SE for children ages 12 to 15. It is still being tested for use in younger children.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said Texas and Iowa “jumped the gun” in removing their mask requirements. Politics around masks, along with unclear guidance from the CDC, have left teachers in an awkward position, she said.

“Teachers don’t want to become the mask police,” she said. “It’s time to let us actually teach.”

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento, California and Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Some Republican governors stand by mask mandates as Texas and Mississippi accelerate reopening

By Gabriella Borter

(Reuters) – While Texas and Mississippi announced complete rollbacks of their states’ COVID-19 mitigation measures this week, several governors of other Republican states have made clear they are not abandoning their mask mandates despite political pressure.

The sharp decline of new daily COVID-19 cases and the rollout of vaccines in the United States have prompted state and local governments to ease business restrictions in recent weeks, with movie theaters set to open at limited capacity in New York and indoor dining resuming in San Francisco on Friday.

However, the decline in cases plateaued last week with new infections rising in 29 out of 50 states compared with the prior week. Texas saw a 69% rise in cases in the week ended Feb. 28.

Few of the rollbacks have been as sweeping as in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday said the state’s mask mandate would be lifted and most businesses could open at full capacity next week.

The move drew immediate criticism from some politicians and public health experts who have urged caution while the nation’s vaccination program is still underway.

President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that decisions to end the required wearing of masks – such as those made by Texas and Mississippi – amounted to “Neanderthal thinking” given the ongoing deaths being caused by the pandemic.

“I think it’s a big mistake. Look, I hope everybody’s realized by now, these masks make a difference,” he told reporters.

Public health experts agree face coverings are essential to slowing the spread of the virus, which has killed more than half a million Americans. But over the last year, resistance to public health measures in the United States, especially mask-wearing, has become politicized, with many Republican states enacting fewer and looser COVID-19 protocols than Democratic states.

In some Republican-led states, including Florida and South Dakota, there has never been a statewide mask mandate. In others, like Alabama and Ohio, mask mandates remain in effect.

Including the upcoming change in Texas, 34 states mandate that residents wear face masks in public, along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

In Ohio, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel on Wednesday called on Republican Governor Mike DeWine to follow Texas’ lead and repeal the statewide mask order. The governor quickly rejected the idea.

“Ohio will be keeping its mask mandate to protect Ohioans who have yet to receive the vaccine. Vaccine supply is increasing, and there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the virus is still here and the pandemic is still ongoing today,” a spokesman for DeWine told Reuters in an email.

Governor Jim Justice of West Virginia, a Republican, said on Wednesday he was not ready to ease any restrictions, including an indoor mask mandate.

“All businesses must continue to follow the safety guidelines,” Justice said.

Abbott’s executive order in Texas will lift all mask requirements statewide as of March 10 and forbid local authorities from penalizing residents who do not wear face coverings. It will remove all restrictions on businesses in counties without a high number of hospitalizations.

Local officials can still apply limits to businesses where hospitalizations remain high, according to the order, but are prohibited from mandating that they operate at less than 50% capacity.

As of Monday, Texas was seeing about 7,500 new cases per day on a seven-day average, according to Reuters data, and it was ranked 47th in the list of states that have vaccinated the highest percentage of their populations.

Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican, on Tuesday also lifted his state’s mask order and removed all restrictions on businesses.

But Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat in a majority Republican state, doubled down on his state’s mask order even as it increased capacity to 75% at restaurants and retail businesses on Wednesday.

“Louisiana’s mask mandate is still in place,” Edwards tweeted. “As we vaccinate more and more people, masks are still our most effective tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives.”

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Peter Szekely, Jarrett Renshaw and Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)