If GOP governors want schools to remain open, they will walk back reckless anti-mask mandates

Opinion by the Washington Post Editorial Board, August 18, 2021.

In lieu of a pediatric coronavirus vaccine, masks are the best tool schools have to thwart infections. But instead of doing everything in their power to protect students, nine GOP-led states have banned school districts from requiring masks amid a nasty Covid-19 surge that is seeing record-high hospitalizations among children — seriously imperiling their constituents’ health and the ability of in-person instruction to continue.

The governors who have issued bans on mask mandates via executive order — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), whose office announced Tuesday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) — have the ability to wipe them away with the stroke of a pen. Even some within their party think they should. In a CNN appearance, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) criticized Florida’s executive order: “I don’t want top-down from Washington, D.C. I don’t want top-down from a governor’s office.”

At least one Republican governor regrets his own anti-mask mandate stance. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed his state’s ban into law in April, when he assumed the pandemic was virtually over. He has since sought to modify the law, admitting that the public health situation has changed — an act of political bravery and an embrace of reality his peers should emulate.

In Arkansas’s case, a judge temporarily blocked the ban this month. Unfortunately, judicial intervention is proving to be an uneven mechanism for undoing anti-mask mandates. The all-Republican Texas Supreme Court has temporarily upheld Mr. Abbott’s ban. Court challenges in other states will likely be a mixed bag, only adding to the chaos.

School boards have continued to pursue mask mandates despite state bans and, in Florida’s case, vague sanctions on some counties. In Florida’s Leon County, which includes the capital, a K-8 mask mandate is in place. Superintendent Rocky Hanna explained his decision plainly: If “heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor.”

Child deaths from Covid-19 are possible, though exceptionally rare. Of even greater concern are long-haul Covid and the risk of school closures. Children under 12 are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccines and are therefore especially vulnerable to the highly transmissible delta variant. More than 120,000 children were infected with Covid in the United States last week. It has been estimated that 10 percent of children who contract Covid will have chronic symptoms such as heart conditions, decreased lung function and behavioral abnormalities. Meanwhile, when a certain threshold of students and staff are infected, and their contacts hopefully quarantined, a school simply cannot function. Some schools in the South have already put the academic year on pause or switched to temporary online instruction after staff shortages and Covid spikes have made in-person instruction impossible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal masking in K-12 schools for a reason. If governors have any concern for student safety, and want fragile school re-openings to hold, they must get out of the way of local actors and work to undo reckless anti-mask mandates.

 Image Credits: Students, some wearing protective masks, arrive for the first day of school at Sessums Elementary School in Riverview, Fla., on Aug. 10. (Chris O'Meara/AP)