Aug 12 (Reuters) – Houston’s public schools voted on Thursday to defy a state ban on mask mandates, joining other districts in Texas and Florida requiring face coverings in classrooms to fight a surge of COVID-19 infections, despite threats from their governors.
The board of the Houston Independent School District was due to vote on a mask mandate on Thursday, flouting Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s ban on such rules.
“The health and safety of our students and staff continues to be our guiding compass in all of our decisions,” wrote the district’s superintendent, Millard House II, in a statement.
The measure is likely to pass, with a majority of board members expressing support for the mandate, the Houston Chronicle reported.
With the start of the academic year coinciding with a dire new wave of COVID-19 cases, schools have quickly become the focal point of the nation’s political fight over masking and vaccine mandates.
The threat by Florida to withhold the salaries of school officials who require masks has escalated tension between Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, a Democrat.
The White House is considering reimbursing Florida school officials if DeSantis, who is widely seen as weighing a potential 2024 challenge for the presidency, follows through on his threat.
The worst of the COVID outbreak is concentrated in the U.S. South, including Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana and Texas, where intensive care units have been stretched to capacity. While flouting federal recommendations on masks, Florida has asked Washington to help by sending ventilators.
The number of daily cases across the country has doubled in the last two weeks, according to a Reuters tally, reaching a six-month peak, while the average number of daily deaths has increased 85% in the last 14 days.
In Texas, some 10,000 people are hospitalized with the virus. In Florida, where Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has banned mask mandates and threatened to withhold the salaries of school administrators who defy the order, about 15,000 people are hospitalized. Florida has set new hospitalization records for 11 days in a row, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Florida and Texas account for about a third of the nation’s COVID-19 hospitalizations, although they only represent about 15% of the population.
“Our frontline health care heroes are finding themselves stretched thin and physical and mental exhaustion is taking its toll,” Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew said in a statement on Tuesday. “This new Delta variant is extremely infectious and leading to 25 and 35 year olds hospitalized for COVID.”
SCHOOLS AS POLITICAL BATTLEGROUNDS
Students and teachers across the United States are back in classrooms or about to start school this month as COVID-19 cases are surging at a pace not seen since the winter, with the Delta variant driving up transmission and causing mostly the unvaccinated to get sick and die.
On Thursday, the National Education Association President Becky Pringle, who leads the largest teachers’ union in the country, said she supported vaccine mandates for teachers. Her statement came on the heels of a similar announcement from the American Federation of Teachers’ president earlier this week.
Several school districts in Arizona have mandated mask-wearing, despite a state law against such mandates. A group of Republican state lawmakers on Wednesday called on Republican Governor Doug Ducey to withhold funds from districts that were enforcing the mandates, saying their noncompliance with state law “borders on anarchy.”
A few Florida school districts, including Broward County, have issued mask mandates, prompting investigations by the state Department of Education and exposing superintendents and school board members to the risk of losing their salaries.
In Texas earlier this week, district judges ruled in favor of allowing Dallas and San Antonio public schools to require masks, dealing a blow to Governor Abbott.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Manas Mishra in Washington; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)