School districts impose mask mandates, defying GOP governors

School districts at the epicenter of a summer surge in coronavirus cases are ordering students and staff to wear masks to stem the pandemic’s spread, in open defiance of Republican governors who have attempted to bar them from imposing new restrictions.

Districts in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Arizona are among those imposing new bans as the school year gets underway. The chief administrators in many of those districts say the mandates are necessary to avoid a repeat of last year’s disastrous start to the school season, when thousands of American schools closed and millions of children stayed home.

But governors or legislatures in nine states, all controlled by Republicans, have tried to bar the new requirements.

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That has set local school boards up against state officials who have imposed statewide controls at the expense of local autonomy. As school years are just getting underway or teachers are preparing to welcome students back, it has created an air of uncertainty and angst as courts weigh in.

“They’re trying to take every step they can to reopen their school building so that students get back to an experience where they can be together, so they can have a more traditional school day, but also they’re taking every precaution to keep their students safe,” Chip Slaven, interim executive director of the National School Boards Association, said of local officials. “They’re being responsible decisionmakers as elected officials representing their communities and their schools.”

At least 13 school districts in Arizona have imposed mask mandates in defiance of a state law signed by Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyJuan Williams: GOP infighting is a gift for Democrats Mace chief of staff steps down during turbulent week Trump to attend fundraiser for Arizona GOP Senate candidate MORE (R) earlier this year. A state judge there ruled Monday in favor of one of those districts, the Phoenix Union High School District, allowing it to continue a mask mandate until Sept. 29, when the law Ducey signed takes effect.

“Ultimately, these mandates are toothless, unenforceable and will not hold up in court,” a Ducey spokesman told Phoenix’s ABC affiliate.

In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisUniversity of Florida researchers pressured to destroy COVID-19 data, told not to criticize DeSantis: report More voters would pick Trump over Biden if election were held today: poll 17 Democratic state AGs back challenge to Florida voting limits MORE (R) has threatened to withhold funding from school districts that impose mask requirements. 

“We believe that we have a constitutional obligation to protect the lives of our students and staff,” Rosalind Osgood, the chairwoman of the Broward County School Board in Florida, said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “We’ve received, you know, threats from our governor. And it’s been really, really dramatic and horrible to be put in this position.”

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday issued a temporary ruling barring mask mandates issued by local officials in Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, upholding an order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott (R). The ruling came days after Houston’s school board voted unanimously last week to impose a mask mandate when school returns to session later this month. 

In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee (R) issued an executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of mask mandates. Lee has come under pressure from Republican legislative leaders to call a special session that would likely lead to a greater erosion of his own authority to issue emergency orders in the midst of the pandemic.

The Biden administration has sided with school districts over the Republican governors who have issued the bans. Over the weekend, President BidenJoe BidenPharma lobby eyes parliamentarian Demand for US workers reaches historic high Biden to award Medal of Honor to three soldiers who fought in Iraq, Afghanistan: report MORE called Chad Gestson, the superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District, and Vickie Cartwright, the interim superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, to offer support.

“In both conversations, the president commended their leadership and courage to do the right thing for the health and well-being of their students, teachers, and schools,” a White House official said of the calls. “Dr. Gestson and Dr. Cartwright are among the leaders who have stepped up at the local level to ensure students and schools are safe where governors have enacted bad public health measures.”

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State officials in 12 states and the District of Columbia — all of which are run by Democratic governors — have maintained mask mandates. Leaders in 28 states, a mix of Democrats and Republicans, have left the choice up to local school boards.

In some cases, districts are going the other way, defying a Democratic governor’s order to require masks. School districts in Floyd, N.M., and Biggsville, Ill., have voted in recent days against issuing mask mandates ordered by Govs. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamTensions emerge over redefining the fully vaccinated Connecticut governor says boosters needed for people to be fully vaccinated New Mexico governor says full vaccination must include boosters MORE (D) and J.B. Pritzker (D), respectively.

The governors who have imposed bans on mask mandates are among the hardest hit in the nation in the latest coronavirus surge, driven by a delta variant that is both more transmissible and more virulent.

Florida has recorded 138 new cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, a whopping 29,711 per day, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 15,000 Floridians are being treated in hospitals. Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, which have all banned local mandates, are all among the latest hot spots — though so are Louisiana and Kentucky, two states that still require masks in schools. 

The new threat of the delta variant, which appears to strike children more than earlier strains of the coronavirus, raises the potential that yet another school year could be disrupted. Already, some schools in Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Nevada and New Mexico have returned to virtual learning, a threat that looms over every other district in the nation.

“We all agree that we would like to have the option to go to your public school building and attend classes,” Slaven said. “The reality is if you are responsible for protecting the students and teachers and staff that go into a school building as well as their families, you have to do what you have to do.”