Mask disputes, outbreaks make for rocky start of school year
The summer surge of the highly infectious delta variant of the coronavirus made for a disruptive start of the school year in many parts of the country Monday as hundreds of thousands of children returned to classrooms and parents, administrators and governors clashed over whether masks should be required.
Confusion reigned in several Texas school districts after the state Supreme Court stopped mask mandates in two of the state's largest districts, the day before the first day of school in Dallas. An Arizona judge upheld, at least temporarily, a mask mandate in a Phoenix district despite a new state law prohibiting such restrictions. One Colorado county posted sheriff's deputies in schools on the first day of classes as a precaution after parents protested a last-minute mask mandate.
Public school authorities are committed to making up lost ground after frequent disruptions, including on- and-off remote learning, in the pandemic's first year left millions of children behind in their studies, especially those of communities of color. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masks in schools for students, staff and teachers.
Nowhere did Monday's battles play out greater than in Texas, where some counties and school districts kept in place mask mandates and others rescinded them as schools reopened after Sunday's court ruling.
The order by the state's highest court — entirely comprised of elected Republican justices — halts mask requirements that county leaders in Dallas and San Antonio, which are run by Democrats, put in place as new infections soared.
Dallas school officials said Monday that masks were still required on district property and that visitors weren't allowed in schools. The Austin school district and Harris County, which includes Houston, also said their mask mandates for schools remained in place.
The top elected official in Dallas County said in a tweet that the Supreme Court ruling did not strike down his mask order, and that it remained in effect.
"We're at war on behalf of moms and dads and kids against a deadly virus. I sure wish the Governor would join our side in the battle," said Dallas county Judge Clay Jenkins.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott strongly opposes public school mask mandates, and students and parents gathered outside the governor's mansion in Austin to urge him to drop that opposition.
The start of the school year comes as the country is averaging more than 130,000 new infections a day and the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has soared to levels last seen in mid-February. The death toll has also risen to nearly 700 a day.
Hospitals in several virus hotspots say they are seeing an increase in infections and hospitalizations in children, bringing anxiety to families starting school. A handful of Republican-led states ban schools from requiring masks but many have defied the laws and are fighting them in the courts.
In West Texas, the Iraan-Sheffield Independent School District district, which began its school year Aug. 10, said Monday it was shutting down for two weeks so students and staff could quarantine. The district, which has about 380 students, provided no data about a virus outbreak, but said no remote learning would be available and urged students and staff to stay at home. Mask wearing was optional in the district.
Yellow school buses and parents snapping back-to-school pictures made the first day of school seem almost normal in Los Angeles, where many schools reopened Monday in the nation's second-largest school district.
In Los Angeles, like the rest of the state, students and teachers are required to wear masks in indoor settings, and teachers must show proof of vaccination or submit to weekly COVID-19 testing.
Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves about 600,000 K-12 students, is also requiring students and staff to get tested weekly for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status, and is conducting daily health checks.
"There is no substitute for in-person learning, friendship and physical activity, which is why we have committed to putting into place the highest safety standards," LAUSD interim Superintendent Megan Reilly said.
San Francisco schools also reopened Monday to more than 50,000 students — many for the first time in 17 months. San Francisco Unified is recommending that students and staff get tested if they have symptoms, but is not requiring tests.
"It's been a long time coming," San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Monday morning as she joined city leaders on a tour of schools to welcome children back. At one elementary school, students walked along a red carpet into the school building as school staff cheered.
In South Carolina, one district has already moved to all-virtual classes after a rash of cases led to hundreds of students quarantined within the first two weeks of the fall semester. That decision has led to protests among parents in Pickens County.
In other South Carolina counties, officials considered joining Columbia, the capital, in requiring masks in schools despite a state budget requirement that bans districts from doing so without risking funding.
In Eagle County, Colorado, sheriff's deputies were posted to elementary and middle schools on the first day of class Monday after parents objected to a last-minute decision Friday by the county school district to require universal masking. No problems were immediately reported, but the potential for trouble is real.
In Los Angeles, a man was released from a hospital after being stabbed when an anti-vaccine protest turned violent Saturday. Dozens of people have protested outside the home of Jenkins, the Dallas County judge, over his emergency order requiring masks. Protesters also showed up over the weekend outside the home of Hawaii's lieutenant governor, an emergency room doctor who has warned that increasing hospitalizations, particularly among the unvaccinated, could lead to another lockdown.
An unruly crowd objecting to masks and vaccines hearing heckled and criticized Louisiana's chief public health adviser as he described to lawmakers the state's coronavirus surge.
Louisiana's health department announced that the state set another record for hospitalizations, with 2,956 people with COVID-19 filling up hospital beds.
"I pray we're close to the peak, I really do. I haven't seen any evidence in our data that suggests we're close," said Dr. Joe Kanter, the state's chief public health officer.
The University of Mississippi Medical Center was setting up a second emergency field hospital in a parking garage to handle some of the sickest COVID-19 patients. Mississippi's coronavirus numbers have doubled in the past two weeks and hospitalizations are the highest since the pandemic began.
The city of New Orleans started Monday requiring that people entering restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor facilities be vaccinated or have a recent negative test for the coronavirus.
New York City prepared to require proof of COVID vaccinations starting Tuesday for anyone dining indoors at restaurants, working out at a gym or attending indoor performances. Enforcement of the requirement begins Sept. 13.
Associated Press writers Adam Causey, Juan Lozano, Jacques Billeaud, Jocelyn Gecker, Michelle Liu, Melinda Deslatte, Leah Willingham, Adrian Sanz and Bobby Caina Calvan contributed to this report.