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'Irrational zealotry': GOP governors in standoff with schools over masks

State leaders have threatened to withhold funding from schools and cities that mandate masks, but some local officials won't back down.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the American Legislative Exchange Council on July 28, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during the American Legislative Exchange Council on July 28, 2021, in Salt Lake City.Rick Bowmer / AP file

The battle over school masking reached a fever pitch as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' administration took aim at two school districts over new mandates that fly in the face of his executive order seeking to prevent them.

In letters to leaders of the public schools in Alachua and Leon counties, the state Education Department said the districts are being investigated for noncompliance because their new mask policies don't provide parents total freedom to opt their children out of in-school masking. The districts were threatened with the possibility of having funding equal to the salaries of their superintendents and school board members withheld — more than $300,000.

In its response, the leaders of Alachua County Public Schools made it clear that they won't be changing course. School officials pointed to the sharp increases in cases and hospitalizations locally, as well as an increase in positive tests among school employees, as reasons for a mask mandate. They also said two of their custodians just died of Covid complications.

"We're trying to do what's best for students," said Jackie Johnson, director of communications for the district. "We're trying to protect their health and safety and the health and safety of our staff and our families."

Across the country, Republican governors like DeSantis have signed executive orders or enacted laws seeking to prevent local officials from imposing new mask mandates. With the school year getting underway as the delta variant of the coronavirus surges, some local officials have decided that defying the measures is the only option.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revised its guidance for schools, recommending that all students and staff members wear masks. Children younger than 12 remain ineligible for the vaccines, and Covid hospitalizations among children are on the rise in places experiencing substantial outbreaks.

"The only way that those children can be protected is by doing what we did last [school] year, which is masking and social distancing and making sure that all the teachers are vaccinated," said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Some of Texas' largest school districts are requiring masks in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order banning such mandates. South Carolina's attorney general wrote to the mayor of Columbia saying he must rescind his mask mandate for day care centers and elementary and middle schools by Friday; the mayor vowed not to comply. Late last month, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey responded to criticism over the month-old law he signed banning mask and vaccination mandates by pledging not to reverse course.

More than a half-dozen Republican-led states enacted such laws or executive orders, and a number of lawsuits have been filed against the bans. A state court recently issued an injunction that temporarily invalidated the ban in Arkansas while a case moves forward.

Lawrence Gostin, director of the O'Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, said that while courts are likely to uphold the measures, he would be tempted as a local official to essentially "dare" a state to enforce them, which could prove politically risky.

The battles are advancing rapidly in Florida, where DeSantis has positioned himself as leading the backlash to Covid-inspired mandates. Florida is experiencing the worst of the pandemic surge, breaking case count and hospitalization records. It ranks in the middle of the pack in vaccination rates among states, with about 50 percent of its population having been fully inoculated, according to an NBC News tracker.

Against that backdrop, DeSantis issued an executive order Friday saying that the new CDC mask guidance for students "lacks" scientific justification and that the state may withhold funding from schools that institute mandates.

DeSantis said at a news conference this week that masking is ultimately "a parent's decision."

"No one's saying you can't" wear a mask, he said. "But if you're somebody that is concerned about that, that thinks that that may not be the right thing for your child, then I think you should have the right to make that ultimate decision."

He has taken heat not just from President Joe Biden but also from some other Republicans who say such decisions should be left up to localities.

"Ron DeSantis has beat the expectations on pandemic response for a long time," said former Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla. "However, this time, DeSantis' once-healthy passion against excessive Covid restrictions like school closures is coming across as irrational zealotry" as cases and hospitalizations reach record levels.

Schools in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin have also clashed with Texas leaders by enacting mask mandates despite Abbott's order.

Abbott and state Attorney General Ken Paxton announced in a joint statement Wednesday that any local official or school defying the order will be "taken to court." Schools and officials enacting mask mandates also risk a $1,000 fine.

"The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates," Abbott said.

Local officials in some of Texas' most populous jurisdictions don't see it the same way, and they're willing to risk the consequences. Hospitalizations in the state have increased by nearly 100 percent in the past two weeks. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, the county's chief executive, said at a news conference that just two pediatric intensive care beds were available in a 19-county area surrounding Dallas.

Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, who instituted a mask mandate, told MSNBC this week: "I know I'll be held accountable for whatever decisions I make. But I would rather be safe than sorry."

A similar battle is unfolding in South Carolina, where Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency requiring day care centers and elementary and middle schools to require masks. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, challenged the mandate, and state Attorney General Alan Wilson wrote in a letter that Benjamin must reverse course by Friday or risk losing funding from the state.

Benjamin said in an interview that he won't budge and pledged to fight legal challenges all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated," he said. "And there's a very relatively easily identifiable population of those who are unvaccinated and do not have a choice to be vaccinated. And those are young people under 12 years old. So let's at least agree to protect them."