ATLANTA — Carlee Simon, the superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools in Florida, looked forward to welcoming students to the new school year — one in which they would not be required to wear masks and could, at last, see one another’s faces again.
But as the hyper-transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus coursed through her district in the north-central part of the state this summer, she began to see a spike in cases and hospitalizations. On July 31, a high school custodian died of COVID-19. Two days later, a custodian at a different high school also died from the respiratory illness.
In the last two weeks, 55 students and 50 teachers in the district of nearly 30,000 students have tested positive for the virus, more than in the previous five months combined. More than 530 students were quarantined. On Monday, the day before children went back to school, 10 children in Alachua were in hospitals with COVID-19, some in intensive care.
For Simon and the Alachua school board, the decision early this month to require students and staff to wear masks was easy.
“We have a very strong constitutional mandate to provide a safe and secure public education to all students,” Simon said in an interview. “Universal masking is the most effective strategy that we have, besides vaccination.”
Simon is among school officials who have taken on the role of guardians of public health, insisting that children wear masks in schools. Those officials tend to be in line with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which issued new guidance recently recommending that all children wear masks indoors in schools, regardless of vaccination status.
More than 30 states have left the decision up to school districts. At least 10 states, including California, plus the District of Columbia, require all students and teachers to wear masks in public schools.
But eight mostly Republican-controlled states — Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, South Carolina, Texas and Utah — have enacted laws or issued executive orders prohibiting school districts from requiring students to wear masks.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has banned mask mandates and is threatening to withhold the salaries of district superintendents and board members who require masks.
DeSantis, a Republican, stated in his executive order that requiring students to wear masks “lacks a well-grounded scientific justification” and that children are at a “low risk of contracting a serious illness” due to COVID-19 and do not play a significant role in spreading the virus.
That message is out of date, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.
“Delta is behaving in a different way, with higher transmissibility among kids and adolescents,” he said, noting that barely a week after schools opened in Mississippi, a string of elementary and high schools closed due to COVID-19 outbreaks and reverted to virtual learning.
Throughout much of the pandemic, children have been at low risk of death or severe side effects from COVID-19. According to the CDC, 354 Americans age 17 and younger have died from COVID-19 — less than half of the 859 children who died from pneumonia and just a fraction of the 52,000 overall childhood deaths. But over the last month, the delta variant has overwhelmed hospitals with a wave of pediatric cases, particularly in conservative states with low vaccination rates.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, almost 94,000 cases were added the week before Aug. 5. Child hospitalizations in the U.S. have reached their highest point during the pandemic, the CDC reported, with 239 patients 17 and under admitted to hospitals Aug. 3-9, a nearly 30% increase over the previous week.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recently urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to authorize COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12 as the delta variant “created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country.”
But differences of opinion have led to aggressive confrontations at some school board meetings.
In Asheville, North Carolina, a few dozen parents opposing Buncombe County Board of Education’s mask mandate forced the board on Aug. 5 to call a recess, then “overthrew” the board and declared themselves the new leaders of the county’s public education system.
In Franklin, Tennessee, a crowd of angry parents shouted, “We will not comply!” at a board meeting Tuesday and threatened public health officials who supported mask mandates.
Britt Maxwell, 43, a parent and internist who treats COVID-19 patients in Nashville, was left shaken after attending the board of education meeting in Franklin and finding that those who supported wearing masks were outnumbered about 10 to 1 by a raucous crowd of anti-maskers.
Maxwell said a mask mandate in Williamson County elementary schools was a no-brainer with delta surging. His two children, ages 7 and 11, are not vaccinated. “The facts are clear,” Maxwell said in an interview. “This isn’t hypothetical. Children are getting sick, now more than ever, and hospitals all across the South … are being stretched to the limit.”
He and other healthcare workers were booed by a crowd that chanted, “No more masks,” and carried signs reading, “Your fear does not take away my freedom” and “Let kids be kids. No mask mandates.”
As Maxwell and his wife left the meeting, a woman called him a traitor.
“My colleagues came with facts and statistics; nobody wanted to hear that,” he said. “They treated us like the enemy and that couldn’t be further from the truth. We were there for the same reason as them — we want to protect the children, including their children.”
In Texas, a growing number of local officials require masks at public schools, defying Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who last month issued an executive order banning mask mandates and last week appealed for out-of-state medical help as hospitalizations soared. Some parents have cheered them on; others are furious.
“School districts don’t get to mandate medical choices for my children,” said Bonnie Anderson, a parent whose children are enrolled in the Katy school district in the Houston suburbs.
Anderson, 43, who was among a group of parents that filed a lawsuit this year to fight mask mandates, said that if the school district requires masks this year, her 15-year-old son will still attend in person, but she will keep her 8-year-old twins home. She said she believed forcing children to wear masks all day was mainly symbolic, unhygienic, wouldn’t do much to prevent the virus’ spread and bred unnecessary fear.
“I just wish it could be optional,” said Anderson, who works in cybersecurity. “I’m all about freedom of choice.”
Last week, officials in the counties surrounding Dallas, Houston and San Antonio successfully sued to require masks in public schools. The chief executive in the county surrounding Houston, Lina Hidalgo, issued an order Thursday requiring masks in public and nonreligious private schools and day-car centers, citing the rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases, including a baby in Harris County on life support with COVID-19.
“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” said Nelson Wolff, chief executive in San Antonio’s Bexar County.
Abbott and Republican allies were trying to quell the rebellion. On Wednesday, the governor and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s mask order issued hours before and threatened to sue officials who defy the governor’s order.
“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.
At least one Republican state leader has backtracked. As cases and hospitalizations soared in Arkansas, Gov. Asa Hutchinson admitted he regretted signing a bill banning mask mandates in April.
He called lawmakers back for a special session to reverse the law, but the Republican-dominated Legislature failed to agree on a bill that would overturn the ban. A judge intervened, temporarily blocking the state from enforcing the law.
In Florida, Alachua County’s Simon was one of two superintendents, along with one in Broward County, defying the governor’s July 30 order.
“It’s a bit overwhelming — and it’s a bit isolating,” Simon said. “I have one other school district going in the same direction that I am.”
She said she would not back down.
“One of the responsibilities of being in education is to model the behavior that we want children to value,” she said. “Standing up for what’s right is important.”
More Florida school districts had imposed mask mandates this month only to reverse course and allow parents to opt out after receiving a letter from state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran expressing “grave concern” about the flouting of state emergency rules. He warned that a failure to comply would result in sanctions.
Ryan Green, 34, owner of a home improvement company in High Springs in Alachua County, said his daughter Opal, 10, and son Legend, 6, were ready to go back to school Tuesday. But after they had been dropped off with new backpacks and lunchboxes — but no masks — his wife, Joan, got a call from the assistant principal asking them to pick up Opal.
Green and his wife had submitted mask exemption forms with parental signatures. But school officials informed them via email before the first day of school that according to district policy, the forms would not be accepted without a physician’s signature. When he tried to drop the kids off again Wednesday, they were not allowed in school.
“Our governor says it’s parental choice,” he said in an interview. “By doing this, they’re refusing my children an education.”
Opal and Legend spent the week at home.
Jarvie reported from Atlanta and Hennessy- Fiske from Houston.