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School districts in Florida and Texas are facing the challenge of how to protect unvaccinated students this fall without a mask requirement, thanks to mandate bans issued by their respective governors
As school staffers and parents prepare for a return to in-person classes parallel to a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, keeping children under 12 — none of whom are able to be vaccinated yet — protected from the threat of the virus remains among the biggest challenges ahead for caregivers, teachers, and parents alike.
Even though public health experts, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are strongly advising that all students wear masks regardless of vaccination status (with the CDC recommending the guidelines for kindergarten through 12th grade, and the AAP increasing it to every student over the age of two), staffers at eight of the biggest districts in the country have their hands tied, and it’s all due to restrictions imposed by their governors.
Of the 20 biggest school districts in the country, eight districts in Florida (Miami-Dade, Duval, Broward, Hillsborough, Orange, and Palm Beach) and Texas (Dallas and Houston) cannot institute a mask requirement because their respective governors, Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, have banned mask mandates in both states — leaving hundreds of thousands of unvaccinated students and their loved ones at risk when they return to school in a matter of weeks. As it stands, Florida is leading the nation in COVID cases, while Texas is third, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Many of the remaining 12 biggest districts are changing mask guidelines in schools from optional to mandatory, given the surge in cases due to the highly contagious Delta variant that is now the dominant COVID-19 strand in the U.S.
According to CNN, Georgia’s largest school district, Gwinnett County Public Schools, just changed its policy, requiring masks at all times for students, staff, visitors and on school buses when school starts next week, regardless of vaccination status. “This decision takes into account current conditions, the rise in COVID-19 case rates in Gwinnett County, and the ineligibility of children age 12 and younger for the vaccine,” the school district said in a statement.
“The facts and recommendations are clear… masks do make a difference and we must do all we can to keep students in school, in person,” said Gwinnett County Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks.
The country’s three largest school districts — New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago — will require masks in schools, as will Clark County Public Schools in Nevada, the fifth largest district in the country; school districts in Philadelphia; Fairfax County, Virginia; Hawaii; Prince George’s County, Maryland; San Diego, Shelby County, Tennessee; and DeKalb County, Georgia, per CNN.
Here’s hoping every school district around the country follows suit — it’s the only chance we have at protecting students under 12 and those not yet fully vaccinated, and it’s more critical than ever to do so.