The return to the classroom in the United States has begun with controversy. Some 56.4 million students, from kindergarten to high school, have returned in person, or are about to do so, after more than a year of distance learning. Another 20 million young people will return to universities in the next six weeks. The political division around the masks between Democrats and Republicans has transferred the tension to the beginning of the course in the country, even despite the expansion of the delta variant. While a dozen states have made the use of face masks mandatory for students and teachers, nine states have outright banned them.
“You are not on our side!” “We know who you are, you can go freely but we will find you!” “There is a place for you in hell!” these were some of the yelling and threats that a mob of anti-mask parents dedicated to Michael Miller, a health analyst who recommended wearing the garment at a school board meeting at a Tennessee college. “You’ve been used to dealing with sheep… Now get ready to deal with lions,” shouted an ex-military member who voted to recommend it for students and teachers. “Take that damn mask off!” a woman yelled angrily at Miller, who fearfully fled the scene in his car.
Scenes like these, increasingly hostile, have been frequent in recent weeks. In Northern California, a man punched a teacher on the first day of school when he saw his four-year-old daughter wearing a mask leaving school. In Texas, another parent violently ripped a teacher’s mask off at a meet-the-teachers meeting.
An analysis by the Center for Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research body, notes that nine states — Arkansas, Arizona, South Carolina, Florida, Iowa, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah — ban the use of mask in the centers. In Texas, until August 19, school districts were not required to inform schools and teachers of positive cases. Governor Greg Abbott, one of former President Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters, has waged a legal battle to prevent the Pfizer vaccine from being made mandatory for public officials. The State is below the average of immunizations, with only 47% of the population protected.
Florida has chosen a similar path. It prohibits the mandatory mask and avoids requiring the vaccine for teachers. The southern state, however, is experiencing its worst moments in the fight against the pandemic these days since the coronavirus arrived in the United States. The entity governed by Republican Ron de Santis has recorded an average of 220 daily deaths this week, the highest number in the entire country. Hospitalizations have also increased at a dangerous rate during August with more than 17,000 patients admitted. Many schools have opted for common sense and have imposed measures that contravene the prohibition decreed by de Santis.
A survey of EducationWeek, a specialized publication, carried out among 1,242 educators at the end of July, indicates that 86% are vaccinated. Only one in ten educators is not interested in receiving the drug, a minority that has been highly visible in several conservative states. The two most powerful teachers’ unions in the country, the National Association of Educators and the American Federation of Teachers, have been in favor of the vaccine, but the last word is with local authorities. Thirty-six states have let school districts make the decision, while another 13 have banned requiring the vaccine for students and teachers. Only California and Washington, two Democratic West Coast states, have made vaccinations mandatory for teachers.
The Los Angeles school district, one of the largest in the country with 600,000 students, reported this Wednesday the first outbreak in the State of California, which returned to classes in stages since August 11. Authorities detected 11 cases, seven of them interrelated, at a Hollywood school, sending an entire classroom home. Countywide, some 2,300 minors have tested positive for COVID-19 in the first week of school. The figure rises to 6,500 minors (one in 70 students) who have missed at least one day of school since August 16, after being quarantined or having been in contact with someone infected. Only one school, out of a thousand, has been forced to close its doors for an emergency, but the center quickly reopened them.
New York and Los Angeles, the two largest school districts in the country, are doing their best to keep the pandemic under control. In the Californian city, students must undergo an antigen test once a week. Teachers must have both doses of the vaccine by October 15 (there is more flexibility in other parts of California). The use of the mask is mandatory. The Los Angeles government also designed a app that allows entry to the classrooms each day after the students respond if they do not have any symptoms of the disease. The tool, called the Daily pass, created huge bottlenecks with waits of up to 40 minutes in the first few days. The authorities have affirmed that they will perfect it.
New York, which will see a million students return to classes on September 13, has also opted for tests as one of the pillars of the new cycle. The city government will randomly test 10% of the unvaccinated adult population in schools every 15 days. Later in the season, and with the consent of the parents, the students will be integrated into the sample. When a positive case is found in a classroom, only unvaccinated close contacts will be required to self-quarantine for 10 days. That same closure period will be used for schools experiencing an outbreak. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday that the city’s 148,000 teachers must be immunized by September 27. Chicago, which goes back to school on August 30, will also require mandatory vaccinations.
The president, Joe Biden, has gone on the offensive due to the attitude of the Republicans, whom he described as “blind from their blindness.” The president ordered his Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, to take legal action to prevent States from prohibiting vaccines and masks for minors. The Administration also seeks to increase the number of vaccinated among the population aged 12 to 17, which barely exceeds 30% immunization despite having the drug available since mid-May. 61% of Americans over the age of 18 have received at least one dose and 52% already have both. The most difficult to convince is the population of 16 and 17 years, who have only been vaccinated 3.3 million. There are still no approved vaccines for children under 12 years of age.
The law has shown signs of being on the same page as the Biden administration. The Supreme Court denied a few weeks ago a motion promoted by eight Indiana University students, who asked to cancel the center’s request so that those who wanted to attend face-to-face classes this fall were vaccinated. Otherwise, students had to take the classes online or drop the semester. The bug can later become a weapon in a fierce battle.