Mask Wars, Part Two

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The White House steps in

On Monday, the U.S. Education Department announced that it was investigating five states over their prohibitions on universal mask mandates in schools.

Those bans may run afoul of civil rights laws that protect students with disabilities from discrimination, federal officials said.

“We are not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators protecting our children,” President Biden said last month, when he outlined his plan to rely on the Education Department’s civil rights enforcement arm to deter states from barring universal masking in classrooms.

Governors of nine Republican-led states have tried to ban mask mandates in classrooms, even though the C.D.C. says that students, teachers and staff should wear masks in schools, regardless of their vaccination status.

The Education Department is investigating Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. It has not opened investigations into Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona because litigation or other state action challenging those bans.

What’s next: If the Education Department finds a violation, a state could lose federal funding. Most investigations result in resolution agreements between the agency and the state.

Here are snapshots from a few states.

In Florida, school boards are masking anyway.

Districts across the state have defied Gov. Ron DeSantis’s ban on mask mandates. And the opposition is only growing, The Tampa Bay Times reports.

The justice system has also pushed back. On Friday a state court rejected his effort to prevent mask mandates in schools. The judge granted an injunction against the state’s education department that blocked it from punishing local school boards.

But DeSantis is undeterred. The ban plays well with his conservative base. (Like many other Republican governors, he frames the decision as a question of parental choice.)

On Monday, his administration made good on its threat to withhold funding from local school districts that require masks.

The practical effect remains unclear. The Biden administration has said that any school district that is stripped of state funding because of a backlash to pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up the difference.

In Arizona, a governor doubles down.

Gov. Doug Ducey, a business-minded Republican with national ambitions, spent much of the last year fending off conservatives angry about pandemic restrictions. But more recently, he has avidly supported the mask-mandate ban passed by the Republican-run legislature.

Education groups have sued to overturn the ban, and more than a dozen school districts across Arizona have passed mask mandates anyway.

But Ducey is also pledging to withhold millions of dollars in federal pandemic aid from schools that plan to require masks.

“In Arizona, we are pro-parent,” he said at a recent news conference. “I want parents to do what they think is the right thing to do.”

In Texas, a lawsuit over disability rights.

A group of parents of young children with disabilities are suing Gov. Greg Abbott, arguing that his ban prevents their children from being able to attend school safely. All the plaintiffs are under 12, so they cannot get a vaccine yet.

Without a mask mandate in schools, the suit contends, the state has forced parents to decide whether to send a child back to the classroom and “risk her life or to leave the public school system.”

Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.

    • Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
    • Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
    • College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
    • Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.  
    • Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
    • New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
    • At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.

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