COVID mask disputes make for rocky start of school year

James Anderson
Associated Press

The summer surge of the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus made for a disruptive start of the school year in many parts of the country Monday as hundreds of thousands of children returned to classrooms and parents, administrators and governors clashed over whether masks should be required.

Confusion reigned in several Texas school districts after the state Supreme Court stopped mask mandates in two of the state’s largest districts, the day before the first day of school in Dallas. An Arizona judge upheld, at least temporarily, a mask mandate in a Phoenix district despite a new state law prohibiting such mandates. One Colorado county posted sheriff’s deputies in schools on the first day of classes as a precaution after parents protested a last-minute mask mandate.

Principal Andrea Harper hugs a student as Harper and Superintendent Kent P. Scribner greet students on the first day of school Monday, Aug. 16, 2021, at T.A. Sims Elementary School in Fort Worth, Texas.

Public school authorities are committed to making up lost ground after frequent disruptions, including on- and-off remote learning, in the pandemic’s first year left millions of children behind in their studies, especially those of communities of color. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.

Nowhere did Monday’s battles play out greater than in Texas, where some counties and school districts kept in place mask mandates and others rescinded them as schools reopened after Sunday’s court ruling.

The order by the state’s highest court – entirely comprised of elected Republican justices – halts mask requirements that county leaders in Dallas and San Antonio, which are run by Democrats, put in place as new infections soared.

Dallas school officials said Monday that masks were still required on district property and that visitors weren’t allowed in schools. The top elected official in Dallas County said in a tweet that the Supreme Court ruling did not strike down his mask order, and that it remained in effect.

“We’re at war on behalf of moms and dads and kids against a deadly virus. I sure wish the Governor would join our side in the battle,” said Dallas county Judge Clay Jenkins.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott strongly opposes public school mask mandates, and students and parents gathered outside the governor’s mansion in Austin to urge him to drop that opposition.

The start of the school year comes as the country is averaging more than 130,000 new infections a day and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has soared to levels last seen in mid-February. The death toll has also risen to nearly 700 a day.

Hospitals in several virus hotspots say they are seeing an increase in infections and hospitalizations in children, bringing anxiety to families starting school. A handful of Republican-led states ban schools from requiring masks but many have defied the laws and are fighting them in the courts.

At least 11 Arizona districts accounting for 140,000 students and more than 200 schools have defied a mask mandate ban by imposing their own requirements for face coverings.

Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner on Tuesday allowed the Phoenix Union High School District to keep its mask mandate despite a new state law that he says does not take effect until Sept. 29. Warner said state law grants school boards authority to protect their students.

Yellow school buses and parents snapping back-to-school pictures made the first day of school seem almost normal in Los Angeles, where many schools reopened Monday in the nation’s second-largest school district.

In Los Angeles, like the rest of the state, students and teachers are required to wear masks in indoor settings, and teachers must show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.

Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves about 600,000 K-12 students, is also requiring students and staff to get tested weekly for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, and is conducting daily health checks.

“There is no substitute for in-person learning, friendship and physical activity, which is why we have committed to putting into place the highest safety standards,” LAUSD interim Superintendent Megan Reilly said.

San Francisco schools also reopened Monday to more than 50,000 students – many for the first time in 17 months. San Francisco Unified is recommending that students and staff get tested if they have symptoms, but is not requiring tests.

“It’s been a long time coming,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Monday morning as she joined city leaders on a tour of schools to welcome children back. At one elementary school, students walked along a red carpet into the school building as school staff cheered.

In South Carolina, one district has already moved to all-virtual classes after a rash of cases led to hundreds of students quarantined within the first two weeks of the fall semester. That decision has led to protests among parents in Pickens County.

In other South Carolina counties, officials considered joining Columbia, the capital, in requiring masks in schools despite a state budget requirement that bans districts from doing so without risking funding.

The Palmetto State Teachers Association, representing the state’s public teachers, urged Gov. Henry McMaster on Monday to suspend the requirement. The Republican governor has repeatedly insisted mask-wearing should be left for parents to decide.

In Eagle County, Colorado, sheriff’s deputies were posted to elementary and middle schools on the first day of class Monday after parents objected to a last-minute decision Friday by the county school district to require universal masking. No problems were immediately reported.

The delta surge and rising COVID hospitalizations stressed health facilities and prompted new restrictions in several states.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center was setting up a second emergency field hospital in a parking garage to handle some of the sickest COVID-19 patients. Mississippi’s coronavirus numbers have doubled in the past two weeks and hospitalizations are the highest since the pandemic began.

Louisiana’s health department announced that the state set another record for hospitalizations, with 2,956 people with COVID-19 filling up hospital beds. Ninety percent of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals aren’t fully vaccinated, according to state health department data, and Louisiana continues to have the nation’s highest per capita number of new COVID-19 cases over the last week.

“I pray we’re close to the peak, I really do. I haven’t seen any evidence in our data that suggests we’re close,” Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s chief public health officer, told lawmakers Monday.

The city of New Orleans started Monday requiring that people entering restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor facilities be vaccinated or have a recent negative test for the coronavirus. New York City prepared to require proof of COVID vaccinations starting Tuesday for anyone dining indoors at restaurants, working out at a gym or attending indoor performances. Enforcement of the requirement begins Sept. 13.

“Just buy into this because it’s going to work for all of us is going to make us all safer,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a press conference Monday.

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Associated Press writers Adam Causey in Dallas, Jacques Billeaud in Phoenix, Jocelyn Gecker in San Francisco, Michelle Liu in Columbia, South Carolina, Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Leah Willingham in Jackson, Mississippi and Bobby Caina Calvan in New York City contributed to this report.