Parents and teachers are on a collision course as schools mandate students wear masks in defiance of state bans in Florida, Texas and Arizona.
While governors and state legislatures enshrine the bans in executive orders and laws, school boards are voting to force children to wear masks despite threats of losing funding.
The emboldened educational bureaucracy comes amid court injunctions from Democratic judges, urging from Democratic lawmakers, and signals from the White House they would have their back if governors enforce the bans.
The Dallas Independent School District, the state’s second-largest, ordered both employees and students to wear masks starting Tuesday as did Bexar County public schools, in a direct rebuke to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order.
Two state district judges granted local authorities the temporary power to issue the mandates. Dallas County’s Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, sued in an effort to overturn the state’s ban on mask mandates.
“Governor Abbott’s order does not limit the district’s rights as an employer and educational institution to establish reasonable and necessary safety rules for its staff and students,” the Dallas district said in a statement.
Stephanie Elizalde, superintendent of the Austin ISD, said at a school board meeting on Monday that she is responsible for the health and welfare of students.
“If I err, I must err on the side of ensuring that we’ve been overly cautious, not that we have fallen short,” she said.
The Texas schools followed Florida’s Broward County School Board voting 8 to 1 on Tuesday to implement a mask mandate under threat of governor Ron DeSantis’ withholding salaries.
Leon County and Alachua County previously announced they would ban masks, with Alachua superintendent Carlee Simon writing in The Washington Post it was “better a loss of funding than a loss of lives”.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho said in a statement that his decision would be made from consultation with public health experts, and that it would not be influenced by the threat to his paycheck.
Their defiance came after backing from the Democratic party establishment. Florida senator Lauren Book said in a statement if the governor defunded public education, they would “fill the gap to support them in this fight”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, meanwhile, said the Biden administration could cover their payroll out of the American Rescue Plan.
“Certainly paying for salaries is a part of that, or could be a part of that, and could cover those needs for these officials,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.
“Department of Education is looking at options, I’m not making a threat of withholding. Certainly, we don’t want to hurt the people of Florida but we’re looking at a range of options to support the public health officials, the leaders, teachers and officials who are trying to protect students and their communities.”
In Arizona, about 10 school districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff, representing more than 130,000 students at 200 schools, filed a lawsuit challenging an anti-mask-mandate law passed by the state’s Legislature, The Associated Press reported.
While the law is being tested in court, Arizona schools that have already announced mask mandates in defiance of Governor Doug Ducey’s ban include, among others: Alhambra Elementary School District, Creighton School District, Littleton Elementary School District, Phoenix Elementary School District, Phoenix Union High School District, Roosevelt Elementary School District, and Washington Elementary School District.
Legal challenges are also being rolled out in states banning mask mandates, such as Utah, Iowa and Oklahoma and South Carolina, which banned mask mandates in a budget provision.
The state’s attorney general Alan Wilson, a Republican, said a school mask mandate passed by Columbia, the state’s capital, must be rescinded or amended to comply with state law.
“Otherwise, the city will be subject to appropriate legal actions to enjoin their enforcement,” he wrote to the city’s council members.