The White House faces two currents of public opinion as Biden prepares to discuss the reopening of schools with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in the coming days. The majority of adults tend to favor mask and vaccine warrants for students and teachers, but polls show strong partisan divisions continue to color how the public prefers to keep children safe.
The governors’ varied approaches to Covid-19 safety protocols this school year reflect those same divides over what it means to trust science. Republican state leaders increasingly see the fight against hiding children as one of their best chances of showing political power – and defeating Biden on the national stage.
Aggressive tactics and the promise of federal intervention have made going back to school difficult, as cases of Covid-19 in children continue to rise.
“My biggest concern is that it’s only getting worse,” said Chip Slaven, interim executive director and CEO of the National School Boards Association. “The president steps in and tries to support local schools, but that’s yet another point of tension. Now you have the federal government, now you have your state government, and now you have the local school boards scratching their heads and saying, “What are we doing?
While many Republicans have linked the decision to wear a mask to personal freedom, some Democratic governors, like California’s Gavin Newsom, are stepping up efforts to demand face coverings, even to the chagrin of local officials. Most states – red and blue – support local control over statewide mandates.
The president, impatient with states failing to comply with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school masking recommendations, has begun to use federal power to push them. Biden’s administration has threatened to control the federal government against states that ban mandatory masks for school staff and students, and it has pledged to replace money governors with provocative local school officials. It is too early to say whether the president’s actions will be enough to rally resisting governors.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, a Republican, tweeted that Biden is “more concerned about Republican governors than he is about the Taliban,” after Cardona warned McMaster to prevent school districts from “voluntarily adopting science-based strategies” to limit the spread of Covid- 19.
More than 1,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported among students and school employees in South Carolina so far this school year.
“We like to have our own personal choice, and I think that’s what it all comes down to,” said Debbie Epling, Republican Party chair for Aiken County, South Carolina. “It comes down to what Democrats say: my body, my choice. “
Nearly 60% of adults believe students and teachers should be required to wear masks in school, according to the results of a poll released Monday by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Majorities also support Covid-19 vaccine mandates for teachers and students aged 12 and older.
But less than 40% of Republicans support mask or vaccine requirements for students and teachers, compared to around 80% of Democrats. These numbers play into the messages of Biden and his opponents.
In Arizona, Ducey launched a federally funded, $ 163 million grant program for eligible schools that remain open and comply with a state law that prohibits mask warrants and vaccine requirements. . A separate $ 10 million program that low-income families can use for private school tuition, online tutoring, or child care has similar restrictions.
“Safety recommendations are welcome and encouraged – mandates that put more stress on students and families are not,” Ducey said last week in a statement.
After Biden targeted Republican governors this month by ordering the Education Department to “use all available tools” for local governments trying to ban face coverings in the classroom, Cardona said the Local school districts had the discretion to use US bailout funds to implement inside masking policies and other tactics.
But federal funding may not change the attitude of parents and local school officials who believe mask warrants infringe every family’s choice about how to protect their children.
“There are people who really think they should be able to choose whether or not to wear a mask,” said Hemi Tewarson, executive director of the National Academy for State Health Policy.
“I am very concerned about the potential increase in [pediatric cases]”Tewarson said.” I think you will see further pressure at the local level to impose masking in schools in order to stay open. “
In Mississippi, where the hospital system is collapsing and nearly 29,000 students are now quarantined due to exposure to Covid-19, Republican Governor Tate Reeves has refused to issue a mandate for schools. But – still years to be reelected – he also refuses to ban mask mandates.
“It doesn’t matter what we say, what we write on the page, what we do,” Reeves said at a press conference earlier this month. “What matters is how people act.”
The Republican governors of Florida, Tennessee and Texas have taken a tougher approach.
DeSantis, the fiery Florida governor considered one of the top presidential contenders in 2024, has offered parents vouchers to send their children to private schools or another school district if they oppose masks, while Sarasota, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, among others, blatantly defy its rules.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee this month signed an executive order that gives parents the option of removing their child from a local mask mandate promulgated by a school or board of health.
Ken Paxton, the attorney general of Texas, sued the San Antonio school district to block a recently passed vaccine requirement for its employees. The Texas legislature made Abbott – not county judges, mayors or superintendents – the leader in state response to emergencies statewide, Paxton argued.
The counties of Dallas, Bexar, Harris and Travis, home to some of Texas’ largest cities, filed lawsuits this month to protect face coverage requirements for students, faculty and staff at K- schools. 12.
Abbot is likely anticipating potential candidates for the 2022 Governors Primary, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has said.
“I think he’s doing his best to go right to [primary challengers], but I don’t know if he can do it, “said Wolff, who challenged Abbott’s ban on mask warrants in court.
Some governors imposing mask warrants are also fighting parents and school districts in their states that require children to be maskless.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, backs a statewide mask mandate for schools despite the refusal of angry families and school board members.
In Oregon, where some school boards have passed resolutions opposing the state’s K-12 mask mandate, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has sent a warning to superintendents and school trustees reminding them that he there is “no ambiguity” in the law, and that it can be enforced by the State Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Disregarding mask requirements will endanger everything we have been working on over the past year,” Brown said in a letter to school officials.
In California, where all educators and school staff must be vaccinated or tested, Newsom imposed a universal mask mandate for schools in July even before the CDC’s recommendation. The governor threatened with recall has faced negative reactions against the decision of the red pockets of the state who see it as an authoritarian overtaking. Parent groups and the Orange County Board of Education have taken legal action over the matter, although similar efforts have failed in the past.
The disconnect leaves Biden with what has become “a very heterogeneous and very disjointed approach to getting kids back to school,” said Yvonne Maldonado, professor of epidemiology at Stanford University and chair of the committee on diseases infectious diseases from the American Academy of Pediatrics. .
“In the meantime, there is really nothing that can be done at the federal level,” she said.
“There are some things, but in reality only Band-Aid approaches. “
Lauraine Genota, Marissa Martinez and Andrew Atterbury contributed to this report.