Local officials are pushing back against Republican governors who banned school mask mandates in two of the country’s most populous states, the latest sign of how polarized the issue has become just as classes begin.
The superintendent of the school district in Florida’s capital, Tallahassee, said he will mandate use of masks, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order suggesting punishments for school districts that require masks in classrooms.
Superintendent Rocky Hanna of Leon County – where Tallahassee is located – told school officials at a meeting Monday, “You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life, including my salary.”
Several other Florida counties – including Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, Orange and Palm Beach – are also defying DeSantis’ order.
In Texas, two of the state’s largest school districts, Dallas and Austin, have announced mask requirements in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.
“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Dallas Independent School District Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said in announcing the district would be the first in the state to require masks for students and teachers.
Austin Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde said the district will require face masks amid a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations from the highly contagious delta variant. And Houston ISD Superintendent Millard House II is expected to seek approval for a mask mandate from the school board of the largest school district in the state this week.
Also in the news:
►Less than a week before Monday’s start of classes, the San Francisco school district said its 10,000 employees — including teachers and other personnel — would have to get vaccinated for the coronavirus or get tested weekly.
►Iowa has thrown out more than 81,000 doses of expired COVID-19 vaccines because of lack of demand, and the figure could reach 217,000 by the end of August.
►The U.S. surpassed 36 million known COVID cases Tuesday, meaning 10.82% of the country has had a positive test.
►Nissan is closing its huge factory in Smyrna, Tennessee, for two weeks starting Monday because of a shortage in computer chips caused by a coronavirus outbreak in Malaysia.
►Pennsylvania will require COVID-19 vaccination by Sept. 7 of its 25,000 workers at state prisons and health care and congregate care facilities.
📈 Today’s numbers: The U.S. has had more than 36 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 617,800 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The global totals: More than 203.7 million cases and 4.3 million deaths. More than 166.8 million Americans – 50.3% of the population – have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
📘 What we’re reading: Staff and faculty at colleges across the country are raising concerns about returning to on-campus work, particularly as the delta variant causes a surge in cases nationwide. Read the full story.
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While close to 700 colleges require students or staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19, many don’t have such a mandate, and some may not enforce use of masks either, even as infections surge nationally.
That leaves some faculty members worried that, as in-person teaching resumes in the coming weeks, they’ll be exposed to the coronavirus and its highly transmissible delta variant.
“We’re all freaking out,” says Kelly Benjamin, spokesperson for the American Association of University Professors.
— Lindsay Schnell
New COVID-19 cases filling up Florida hospital beds are straining the state’s emergency services, including ambulances and fire departments. In St. Petersburg, patients may wait in ambulances for up to an hour before they’re admitted into a hospital, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said.
Burton said the most serious cases still get prompt attention, and the county is working with fire rescue officials to find more ambulances and extra staff. But “that really taxes an already overstressed fire and rescue staff,” he said.
COVID-19 hospitalizations in Florida have surpassed the worst previous surge in July 2020 and set a record with 13,600 Monday.
In Texas, Houston is experiencing a similar strain as some hospitals operate under “internal disaster” codes, meaning ambulances are being diverted because its emergency department has too many acutely ill patients, ABC 13 reported.
It took only two days after Glascock County Consolidated School in Georgia started the fall term for the first signs of COVID-19 to show.
A week later, 16 students and seven teachers had tested positive for the coronavirus, nearly 100 students are in quarantine and the school has gone to distance learning for two weeks.
Principal Michael Costello said all the health data in the weeks leading up to the beginning of the school year looked encouraging, but shortly after classes started Aug. 2, a few students started reporting COVID symptoms. Now two high schoolers and 14 elementary and middle school kids have the virus.
“It just took off,” Costello said.
Parish Howard, Augusta Chronicle
In districts across the country, school board meetings have become the battlegrounds of unruly debates over mask mandates in schools. Fueled by misinformation campaigns against masks, tensions have heightened in schools, turning once sparsely attended school board meetings into shouting matches.
Most recently, anger over mask requirements boiled over in North Carolina when a group of unruly parents opposing Buncombe County’s mask requirements “overthrew” the current board and instated themselves into the positions. Roughly 30 people signed a loose-leaf paper claiming themselves “witnesses” of the new school board.
“They acted as a dictatorship, and so therefore, the people then take it into our own hands to abolish that governance and reelect new members right then and there,” said the group’s leader, Stephanie Parsons.
Buncombe County Schools attorney Dean Shatley said the group’s actions “unequivocally” do not mean the current school board is out of office.
Other school board meetings across the country have been rescheduled because of rowdy anti-masking protests, one of which led to charges filed in July against 11 people who interrupted a Utah school board meeting.
Half of the states have reported at least 500,000 COVID-19 cases, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows, and 11 have reached the 1 million mark as the pandemic reasserts its grip on the U.S.
The states that have crossed the seven-figure threshold include California, Texas, Florida, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey and Michigan. Oklahoma and Kentucky recorded their 500,000th infections Monday.
Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana have more people hospitalized with COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic, causing a shortage of nurses and other healthcare personnel.
Kentucky had a few hundred COVID hospitalizations in early July, but the total skyrocketed to 1,139 by Monday. Numbers of patients in intensive care and on ventilators also have risen steadily.
In Oklahoma, the seven-day average of new daily cases now tops 2,000. The last time the state’s rate of daily cases was higher was in early February.
– Mike Stucka, USA TODAY and Josh Dulaney, Oklahoman
Months after Troy Petenbrink received the Novavax vaccine as part of a clinical trial, he’s still waiting for the biotech company to apply for authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. And while other fully vaccinated people are going to gyms, movie theaters and bars, Petenbrink is struggling to convince strangers that he’s protected.
A freelance travel writer, Petenbrink had to turn down an assignment because the cruise line only accepts the three authorized vaccines, from Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. He recently tried to go to a bar with his partner but was turned away because he hadn’t received one of the three FDA-authorized vaccines.
“No one along the way explained any of this as a possibility,” he said of the clinical trial.
About 50,000 Americans are in the same situation, having volunteered for either the Novavax or AstraZeneca vaccine trials.
Both vaccines have shown strong effectiveness and safety data. AstraZeneca’s vaccine has been distributed across the U.K., Europe and other parts of the world. But both companies have yet to submit their vaccines for authorization in the U.S.
– Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY
Most Florida children are returning to school in areas where COVID-19 outbreaks are far more intense than they were when school started last year.
In most counties, cases are at least four times higher than a year ago, a USA TODAY Network analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Five counties report a more than tenfold increase.
Cases among children are also surging, raising questions about the health consequences of students returning to campuses and a state ban on school mask mandates while vaccines are available for only some of the schoolchildren.
Public health experts and pediatricians said last fall that the most important factor to consider when deciding whether to start classes in-person was the amount of viral spread in the community at large. With cases so much higher than last year, districts are going against those recommendations by welcoming students to campus and limiting online learning options.
– Jayme Fraser and Mike Stucka, USA TODAY
Contributing: Shelby Harris, Asheville Citizen Times; Arika Herron and MJ Slaby, Indianapolis Star; The Associated Press.