Top Republicans are fighting school districts in heavily Democratic states over whether students should have to cover up when they return to school. This is despite the coronavirus outbreak ravaging the reddest and most unvaccinated areas of the country.
Republican Governor. Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Republican Governor, has threatened to reduce funding for school districts that violate a ban on mandated classroom masks. His office is now proposing that it could order officials to withhold salaries from those who enforce such rules.
Governor of South Carolina Henry McMaster threatens to withhold funding for schools in Columbia, his state capital, over masking rules. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to enforce a similar order against mask mandates — despite large school districts around the state, including Dallas and Austin, promising to go ahead with classroom face covering requirements.
Even the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia has condemned school mask mandates as a violation of parental rights.
Republicans have clear political incentives to adopt this position. For more than a year, the party’s base opposed mask rules and long resisted the idea of “mandate” for the term. However, some Republicans have started to warn about the political and safety risks associated with making schools and children’s lives the main battleground in an ideological struggle.
“It’s very visceral,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas. “We’re approaching this very tribalisticly, very angrily, very politically,” he said, adding that both sides are digging in “instead of trying to get together, I believe, at the most local level possible, and saying, ’Hey, let’s try and work out what’s best.’”
Local school meetings have been packed with the issue, resulting in heated exchanges. A video of a Williamson County meeting showed parents shouting obscenities and following mask supporters to a parking lot. Madison Cawthorn (Republican-Electual) was recently present to protest masking rules in his district. He called them “psychological child abuse” and said they were approved by the county school board.
This is because some Democrat-run States are moving in the other direction. They impose masking rules in classrooms and public spaces, after easing them in recent months, when it appeared the pandemic was waning.
That’s consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that children mask up in school. The American Academy of Pediatrics and Children’s Hospital Association recently reported that almost 4.3 million U.S. COVID-19 children have been affected. This represents 14% of all cases in the United States, but it is not common for children to be hospitalized or die.
In Florida, which has seen cases and hospitalizations rise sharply, some school districts are suing to oppose DeSantis’ order. Others, like Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, plan to require students to wear masks regardless. In a letter to Governor Rocky Hanna, Superintendent Rocky Hanna stated that his district wanted “the flexibility as well as the autonomy to make decisions about our schools.”
“Unfortunately, it has become well-politicized,” Hanna said in announcing his decision, adding that if “things went sideways” as school begins anew “and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida.”
Jasmine Burney Clark, founder of Equal Ground Education Fund which spent months helping to facilitate vaccinations for Floridians said, “School boards across the state say, ‘We are going to call your Bluff, and we will require mask mandates to our students.’
“‘You’re not taking the lead so, if you want schools to open, here’s what you need to do,’” Burney-Clark said districts are telling DeSantis.
Some people have pointed out that the push to ban mask mandates is contrary to the Republican political ethos, which advocates for limited government and “local control,” leaving decisions on such things as schools and community ordinances up to local officials.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said he opposes DeSantis’ orders against school mask mandates, saying on CNN Sunday, “The local official should have control here.”
One Republican governor has resigned. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison called Arkansas’ lawmakers to special session to discuss loosening the ban on mask mandates, which he now regrets signing in April. The ban has been temporarily blocked by a judge.
However, not all school districts push for mask mandates. After Kentucky Democratic Governor. Andy Beshear ordered masking rules in his state’s schools, some superintendents applauded. One voicemail to parents slammed the governor as “liberal lunatic”, and said that “the professional opinion your superintendent doesn’t matter.” Your school board’s opinion doesn’t matter.
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam (Democrat) argues that the CDC’s recent recommendations serve as a defacto mask mandate for schools, since a March state law requires conforming to federal guidance. Glenn Youngkin, Republican candidate for governor, has pledged not to require masks in schools if elected. He said, “This should be a choice that parents can make.”
Unlike DeSantis, Abbott and many other leading Republicans, Youngkin has prioritized his business experience as a former private equity manager more than his loyalty to former President Donald Trump — little surprise in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points. Still, his comments show that mask opposition has grown beyond ardent pro-Trumpers.
Monmouth University polling last week showed that 73% of Republicans opposed bringing back social distancing and masking guidelines. However, 85% of Democrats support it. The deepest division was among independents, with 42% supporting and 55% opposing.
“It’s expanded beyond the people you initially see at the Trump rallies,” Patrick Murray, Monmouth’s polling director, said of Republican mask opposition. But he also noted that so much of the party has now absorbed the former president’s message that “all of those people who were considered moderate Republicans in the past have become, on almost every issue now, nearly lockstep with whatever the Donald Trump position is.”
There may be more support for masks in schools. Gallup’s late July survey found that 57% parents of school-age children support mask mandates for unvaccinated students. Elementary schools are dominated by these students, as vaccines are available only to people over 12.
A May poll by the RAND Corporation found that such attitudes break sharply along racial lines. Some 86% of Black parents, 78% of Hispanic parents and 89% of Asian parents said mask mandates for adults and children needed to be in place for them to feel safe in sending their children to school, compared with 53% of white parents who felt that way.
RAND senior policy researcher Heather Schwartz, the study’s lead author, said one possible reason for the differences could be that parents in rural areas, which tend to be whiter, are more likely to oppose anti-COVID measures. Another may be the virus having killed minority Americans at higher rates than whites, she said.
This survey also found that 26% and 29% of white parents thought schools should return to normal by fall. Schwartz stated that some respondents said things such as “The government doesn’t have to tell us what we should do” in their responses.
“There’s a sort of general masking attitude that’s spilling over into schools,” Schwartz said, “rather than the reverse.”