For so long, this fall was to be a milestone on the road back to normality, as schools fill with students, many of them returning for the first time after 17 months of online lessons — an eternity for a young developing mind.
But the surge in the Delta variant came at just the wrong time — plunging America back into its public health nightmare when it had seemed, even as a recently as a month ago, that the crisis was easing. The resurgence of the pandemic has led to extreme stress and concern among parents, who are desperate to send their children back to school but are conflicted by a natural instinct to keep them safe — and who are leery of yet more disruption in the form of quarantines and isolation periods just as employers have begun nudging workers back to offices.
The new semester will pose a stiff new test for President Joe Biden at a moment when he is facing the most difficult moment of his presidency so far over the disastrous US exit from Afghanistan. The new school year is also exposing new political fault lines over basic public health precautions in states, and local jurisdictions that reflect the country’s cavernous ideological divides.
The national scenario could hardly be more dire as classes begin.
In Covid-inundated Louisiana, officials halted a school board meeting amid a mask protest. There is an uproar in Cobb County, Georgia, where some parents pulled kids from class because schools are ignoring basic health protocols. In Texas and Florida, there are revolts against Republican governors who blocked mask mandates, in an apparent play to GOP presidential primary voters should former President Donald Trump — who inspired much of the skepticism of basic public health measures — not run again in 2024. A northern California elementary school teacher was attacked by a parent in an argument over face masks. School board meetings erupted in chaos in Tennessee and Florida, poisoned by misinformation and political grandstanders.
The political sideshows come with hospitalizations among children at record highs — a particular concern for parents of kids under 12, who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. The drawn-out approval process for pediatric vaccines has frustrated many parents, but officials say they are going as fast as they can.
“This is not an adult disease anymore,” Dr. Sara Cross, a member of the Tennessee Republican governor’s Covid-19 task force, told CNN’s Ana Cabrera.
Most poignantly, the recent surge in cases — and a variant that has sent more kids to hospitals than in the earlier waves of infection — represents in many cases a dereliction of duty from older generations to protect the young. The refusal of many Americans to get vaccinated powered the Delta takeover that will make going back to school such an uncertain process — for many kids and parents.
The start of classes is also posing questions about whether federal, state and local governments have put in place sufficient precautions to make schools safe and conducive learning environments. Biden said Wednesday that he will speak to the nation in the coming days on the return to school. His massive Covid-19 relief plan included billions of dollars for schools, including for preparing buildings to allow children and teachers to safely come back. The President has a generally strong record on the pandemic, especially when compared with the neglect of his predecessor.
But the return to school comes at a moment when Biden is experiencing political vulnerability and questions about his judgment because of Afghanistan. He is therefore under great pressure to demonstrate leadership and control as kids go back to class, an issue that could dim his popularity just as much as the messy end of the Afghanistan War. This is especially the case in suburban districts that might hold the key to the midterm elections in November 2022. To some extent, the President has only limited influence, given the primacy of the states in setting education policy. But he has the power of the presidency to set the tone for states.
The start of the new semester is also sparking political turmoil outside Washington.
The battle between science and politics rooted in America’s ideological divides that hampered the effort to beat the pandemic is creating an unpleasant spectacle of politicians using children to court political favor.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, have harvested admiring headlines in conservative media after banning school districts from imposing mask mandates — one of the few ways to keep kids safe.
Both argue that it’s up to parents and not school officials to decide what is best for children — playing into resistance to curbs on individual freedoms even during the worst health crisis in 100 years.
DeSantis, for instance, on Thursday criticized Florida’s Hillsborough County for requiring masks at indoor school sporting events, and inaccurately suggested that athletes were included and risked being unable to breathe.
“Of all the things that you could be dealing with, you are choosing to do this?” DeSantis said, referring to politicians who focus on masking in schools — a question that might well be asked about his own partisanship on the issue. After all, the Florida governor is doing more to protect parents’ rights than he is to stop kids from getting sick.
At least five public school districts in Florida have defied an order by DeSantis banning mask mandates, in a confrontation that could have real consequences for his reelection race next year — which he must win to still be considered a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024 if Trump doesn’t run.
Public health experts argue that while politicians like DeSantis say masks are uncomfortable for kids, they are indispensable to stopping the spread of Covid-19 and keeping schools open in the coming months.
“This debate about masks in schools — the debate is done,” Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health and a former top US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, said on “CNN Newsroom.”
“In the data right from the field, we have learned over the last two weeks that school districts that went back without fully masking everybody — they’re closing. We have numerous schools districts that have closed schools.”
In one example of such disruption — which new research shows can cause learning difficulties and mental health problems among children — Mississippi’s Board of Education voted Thursday to allow a return to hybrid learning.
Between August 9 and 13, more than 20,000 students in the state had to quarantine due to potential Covid-19 exposures, according to the state’s Department of Health. During the same period 4,521 students and 948 employees tested positive for Covid-19 across 803 schools in the state.
One Democratic governor swimming against the tide in a largely conservative state is Andy Beshear of Kentucky, where there are a record high 18 children in pediatric intensive care units with Covid-19.
“Sending unmasked, unvaccinated kids into a poorly ventilated classroom is like holding the world’s largest chickenpox party — except instead of chickenpox it is the third leading cause of death last year,” Beshear told CNN’s Kate Bolduan on Thursday.
A circle of safety
The key to protecting children, especially those in elementary and middle schools who can’t yet be vaccinated, is to keep them as safe as possible in a circle of adults who have had their inoculations. That is why some states are increasingly looking to provide that indirect level of protection for kids. Oregon, for instance, introduced a requirement on Thursday for K-12 educators, staff and volunteers to be fully vaccinated by October 18 or six weeks after full approval of the vaccines by the US Food and Drug Administration, whichever is later.
“Our kids need to be in the classroom full time, five days a week, and we have to do everything we can to make that happen,” said Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious diseases specialist, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” on Thursday that regulators were working to clear a vaccine for kids as soon as it was safe. But he warned that until then, masking and vaccines for adults were the best line of protection.
“You have got to create a safe environment, and there are a few ways of doing that,” Fauci said. “One of the safest ways is to surround the children with people who are vaccinated if they are eligible to be vaccinated.”
More advice from federal officials is not what Republican governors want to hear, however. After Biden warned on Wednesday that the government would use Covid relief funds to pay school officials whose salaries get stopped because they defy state bans on mask mandates, several dug deeper into their positions.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, one of several Republican leaders in various states who received letters from the Department of Education warning that their stances contradicted public health guidance, sought to tie Biden’s support for school mask requirements to his other political challenges.
“We have a crisis at the border, a disaster in Afghanistan, and inflation is soaring. President Biden is failing on each of these issues, yet he is now launching an attack against governors like myself for trusting our people to decide what’s best for them,” Reynolds said in a statement on Thursday.
But there are growing signs that with the virus raging out of control in many states and millions of kids again at risk of losing precious time in class, a majority of Americans are on board with basic precautions in schools.
In a Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month, 55% of Americans said the CDC’s recommendation that all public school students, staff and teachers wear masks in school, regardless of vaccination status, was a good idea.