Schools have become the latest battleground in the fight over coronavirus safety.
As the delta variant continues spreading rapidly across the country, causing a new wave of infections and hospitalizations, it is sending school administrators scrambling to adjust reopening plans.
Schools will open in the next weeks, but there’s no national consensus on how to keep classrooms safe, raising questions and conflicts for the nation’s teachers, parents and school boards.
Local districts in Florida, Arizona and Texas are at war with their GOP governors over the refusal to allow mask requirements.
Meanwhile, parents in Georgia's largest school district are filing a lawsuit because the school requires students to wear masks.
School board members are being screamed at, and in one viral video, health care workers in Tennessee who advocated for masks were harassed after they spoke at a school board meeting.
In California, all teachers will need to be vaccinated — unless they want to produce a negative COVID-19 test instead. But proof of vaccination is required for anyone who wants to eat inside a restaurant or go to a gym in some major cities.
It creates an impossible situation for school administrators.
“Our superintendents are under tremendous pressure and have been, this is now going into the third school year that's been affected by this pandemic. And they get it from all sides,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
“We thought a month ago that the school opening for this coming year was going to be something that would bring kids back in large numbers in person. Now, we see that because of the refusal for people to get vaccinated, and to have their children vaccinated, and their refusal to wear masks ... we're having a significant uptick [in infections], particularly among children,” Domenech said.
Until children under age 12 are eligible to be vaccinated, experts say the best way to keep them safe in schools is to use all the tools available; physical distancing, masks, ventilation and vaccines for everyone else who is eligible.
Students in states including Kentucky, Illinois, New Jersey and Virginia will start school with mask mandates in place.
GOP governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas and Doug DuceyDoug DuceyTrump to attend fundraiser for Arizona GOP Senate candidate Arizona defies demand it stop using COVID-19 relief money for anti-mask schools Republicans poised to sweep Virginia, stunning Democrats MORE of Arizona have issued orders barring local school districts from requiring masks in the classroom.
Most other students live in areas where it's up to the local districts to decide on masks.
Critics say the inconsistent standards have led to a patchwork of protections that is built just as much on politics as on public health.
“It shouldn't have to be this way,” said Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University. “It's so incredibly frustrating that we know what it takes to have our kids be back in school safely, and we're choosing not to do it.”
President BidenJoe BidenCDC working to tighten testing requirement for international travelers On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by ExxonMobil — Manchin seeks 'adjustments' to spending plan MORE on Thursday decried governors who have imposed bans on mask requirements in schools, and said the “heroes” are the health care workers and local leaders who have pushed back on those edicts.
“I know there are a lot of people out there trying to turn a public safety measure — that is, children wearing masks in school so they can be safe — into a political dispute. But this isn’t about politics. This is about keeping our children safe,” Biden said.
Yet parents and public health experts are pleading for the Biden administration to take a stronger role.
“The federal government should be setting up some realistic guidelines and benchmarks around vaccine mandates and mask mandates. I feel like a lot of the confusion that's happening for parents and families is because we don't have clear cut guidance at a federal level,” said Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at Johns Hopkins University.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first issued recommendations in July that were largely based around vaccination status.
The agency recommended fully vaccinated students and teachers did not need to wear a mask indoors or outdoors. Unvaccinated students and staff could go without a mask outside during gym and recess but were urged to wear one indoors.
But about a month later, as infections spiked due to the delta variant, the agency changed course, and recommended universal indoor masking for all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“While we have this updated guidance that makes these recommendations, I feel that should have been consistent through the spring, so that families would have known how to adapt to that. It's the back and forth that I think becomes a little bit uneasy for families,” Anderson said.
Polls show there is broad public support for schools to require students to wear masks, especially since a large majority of school-age children are currently too young to be vaccinated.
A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 63 percent of parents of all school-age children said schools should mandate masks for unvaccinated students and staff in the building.
Opposition was largely partisan; 88 percent of Democratic and 66 percent of independent parents of school-age children said they support masks in schools, compared to 69 percent of Republican parents who disagreed.
Aside from the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends face coverings in schools, but Republican leaders are still digging in on their opposition.
“We believe the parent, rather than the government, should ultimately be able to make that decision,” DeSantis said at a recent news conference.
Anderson said she is worried that many schools were not able to invest in upgraded ventilation and filtration systems, so even in places with mask requirements, outdated buildings and crowded classrooms will lead to unsafe conditions.
“In about the next three weeks we're going to have all of our students, basically, back in the classroom. And we have basically said, OK, we're gonna close our eyes and just jump into the abyss with our fingers crossed and hope that this is all going to work out."