This article will be updated regularly throughout the month of August.
The combination of the exponentially more infectious Delta variant, state politics around masking and vaccines, and the start of the school year has left many kids, their parents, and school officials set on what feels like a collision course.
Many — but not all. The reality is that the threat of COVID to kids during back-to-school season varies widely, and quite literally depends on where you live.
Right now, 14 states require masks in school. Eight states have banned districts from requiring masks. Everywhere else, it’s a patchwork approach: The decision is left up to individual counties and school districts, many of which have opted to make masking optional.
Twelve states have banned public schools from mandating the COVID-19 vaccines for eligible students, teachers, or both, even though 61 percent of adults support COVID vaccine requirements in schools.
All this despite both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics issuing recommendations that in-person learning take place — with mandatory mask requirements. They’ve also recommended that anyone eligible for vaccination receive the COVID vaccine before back-to-school season starts.
COVID case counts are skyrocketing — and unlike the last COVID surge, this time the same kinds of dramatic numbers are being seen in children. In the last month alone, there has been a 22 percent increase in hospitalization rates among U.S. children ages 0-17, with each new week setting new and unfortunate records.
Predictably, tensions are flaring, between government and school officials, and parents who are exerting heavy pressure on them from all sides of the masking debate.
Here, The 19th looks at some of the states facing the most tension in the school masking battle — and the highest infection rates.
A judge ruled on August 27 in favor of a lawsuit challenging Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order against mask mandates for school.
DeSantis, a Republican, has made his stance on mandates for preventive measures to stop the spread of COVID in schools well known: In addition to implementing both mask and vaccination bans, he also declared that his state would fight back should there be any kind of move from the federal government to require masks for young students.
Florida is bearing the brunt of the Delta surge right now, especially when it comes to kids: The state is seeing the highest hospitalization rate among children nationwide. Just days into the school year, Palm Beach County — the state’s 10th-largest school district, also located in south Florida — had over 400 students in quarantine after more than 50 students in the district tested positive for COVID after just two days back in the classroom.
Ten districts — covering more than half the students in the state — have defied the governor’s orders and implemented mask mandates. It’s a move that has put superintendents and other school officials’ salaries at risk. The Biden administration has voiced support for those districts, saying COVID relief funds will be utilized for any school officials who lose their jobs or pay over their decision.
Only two weeks into the school year for most public schools, Georgia has already seen 15 school districts move to suspend in-person learning as a result of a dramatic spike in COVID infections.
At the end of May, just as most schools in the state wrapped up their first pandemic school year, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued an executive order saying public schools don’t have his permission to implement mask mandates. While Kemp does not have the authority to impose regulations on individual school boards, it was about as close as his office could get to a mask ban. (In a nod to this tension, state health officials have asked that students wear masks during a quarantine period if they attend class shortly after being exposed to an infected person.) At the end of July, right before most public schools began, Kemp doubled down on his stance against masking requirements, even as Mayors Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta and Van Johnson of Savannah both implemented indoor mask mandates in their cities. Kemp continues to hold this position, with a new executive order on August 19 limiting local officials’ ability to set mask-wearing rules for businesses.
Across the state, COVID case rates have risen by over 200 percent in the past few weeks alone, with hospitalizations up by 50 percent statewide.
On August 2, less than three months after lifting his state’s indoor mask mandate, Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide mask mandate for all K-12 schools in Louisiana. The decision came at a critical time, as the state is currently experiencing the fastest-growing rate of positive COVID tests among kids nationally. As of August 6, one in four children in Louisiana had tested positive for COVID. In the past few weeks, there have been times when there were no pediatric ICU beds open anywhere in the state.
Edwards’ mandate came after individual school districts failed to routinely implement mask mandates on their own, even as COVID continued to run rampant across the state. Louisiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., with under 37 percent of its eligible population fully vaccinated. Large hospitals across the state are at capacity, leaving smaller hospitals in more rural areas with the inability to transfer patients who need higher levels of care than their own facilities can provide — and a lack of available beds for those presenting with new cases.
In addition to a newly implemented indoor mask mandate, which includes schools, Edwards’ public stance on the need to confront the spread of COVID in the state has also led to an increased move toward vaccination. A record number of Louisiana residents have gone to get their first dose in the past few weeks.
Mississippi’s Republican governor, Tate Reeves, has described COVID cases in kids as nothing more than “the sniffles,” and something that happens “from time to time.” Reeves has not mandated masking in schools in the state, despite the fact that the state broke its daily COVID positive test case rate on three separate days last week alone. Even then, Reeves referred to the CDC’s recent recommendations to resume indoor masking — including in schools — as nothing more than “political panic” that goes against the state’s core belief in “freedom.”
Mississippi is also facing a critical shortage when it comes to ICU beds, recently converting a parking lot adjacent to University of Mississippi Medical Center into a field hospital staffed by health care workers sent by the federal government. The state has only a 36 percent vaccination rate, and Reeves himself is one of the state’s many unvaccinated residents.
1,000 kids and 300 teachers tested positive for COVID in Mississippi after the first two weeks of school earlier this month. Just weeks before, a school district in southern Mississippi temporarily moved its students to virtual learning after a spike in cases. That same district had just resumed in-person learning again, following a previous surge in case counts.
The state of Texas has been locked in an emotional legal battle over mask mandates in schools for weeks now. In May, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order banning mask mandates in schools. Then in July, Abbott re-upped his ban by coupling it with a new ban on COVID vaccination mandates in schools, too.
But two school districts — in San Antonio and Dallas — refused to comply, especially as COVID cases spiked statewide. Bexar and Dallas Counties both announced mask mandates — including inside schools — and were quickly challenged in court. Two separate state district judges initially upheld the counties’ respective mandates, but the Texas Supreme Court ruled to temporarily block the move on August 15.
Other counties soon moved forward with their own mask mandates, led by Harris County, which includes Houston. On August 19 the court allowed the state district judges’ rulings to stand (effectively lifting the temporary block) while cases made their way through appellate court. In the meantime, the Texas Education Agency has said that it will not enforce Abbott’s order until there is a final court ruling, and school districts are now establishing their own masking rules.
Positive COVID cases in kids continue to rise in Texas. So do cases of RSV, another upper respiratory virus that can be especially dangerous in young children. The “twin pandemics” are resulting in a critical shortage of pediatric ICU beds in the state, one all the more dire given how many children are presenting with both COVID and RSV upon admittance.
Abbott tweeted on August 15 — shortly before his own COVID diagnosis — that anyone who wishes to wear a mask in school is still free to do so, but that such a choice cannot be mandated.
From the Collection