WASHINGTON — Top Republicans are battling school districts in their own states' urban, heavily Democratic areas over whether students should be required to mask up as they head back to school — reigniting ideological divides over mandates even as the latest coronavirus surge ravages the reddest, most unvaccinated parts of the nation.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has issued an executive order threatening to cut funding from school districts that defy a statewide ban on classroom mask mandates. He's now suggesting his office could direct officials to withhold pay from superintendents who impose such rules anyway.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is threatening to withhold funding to schools in his state's capital of Columbia over masking rules, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to enforce a similar order against mask mandates — despite large school districts around the state, including Dallas and Austin, promising to go ahead with classroom face covering requirements.
Even the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the purple state of Virginia has decried school mask mandates in the name of parental rights.
The posture comes with some clear political incentives for Republicans. The party's base has opposed mask rules for more than a year and long recoiled at the word "mandate." Still, some within the GOP's own ranks have begun to warn of the safety and political risks involved in making schools — and children's health — the chief battleground for an ideological fight.
"It's very visceral," said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas. "We're approaching this very tribalisticly, very angrily, very politically," he said, adding that both sides are digging in "instead of trying to get together, I believe, at the most local level possible, and saying, 'Hey, let's try and work out what's best.'"
The issue has packed local school meetings and sparked heated exchanges. Video of a meeting in Tennessee's Williamson County showed angry parents chanting "No more masks" and following mask supporters to the parking lot to shout obscenities. First-term U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., recently showed up to denounce masking rules approved by county school board members in his district, calling them "nothing short of psychological child abuse."
It all comes as some Democrat-run states are moving in the opposite direction, reimposing masking rules for classrooms and other public spaces after easing them in recent months, when it seemed the pandemic might be waning.
That's consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that children mask up in school. A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association found that nearly 4.3 million U.S. COVID-19 cases have affected children. That's about 14% of all cases nationwide, though the report said hospitalization and death among children is "uncommon."
In Florida, which has seen cases and hospitalizations rise sharply, some school districts are suing to oppose DeSantis' order. Others, like Leon County, which includes the state capital of Tallahassee, plan to require students to wear masks regardless. Superintendent Rocky Hanna said in a letter to the governor that his district sought "the flexibility and the autonomy to make the decisions for our schools."
"Unfortunately, it has become well-politicized," Hanna said in announcing his decision, adding that if "things went sideways" as school begins anew "and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can't just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida."
Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder of Equal Ground Education Fund, which has spent months helping facilitate vaccinations for Floridians, said "school boards across the state are saying, 'We're going to call your bluff, and we're going to require mask mandates for our students.'"
"'You're not taking the lead so, if you want schools to open, here's what you need to do,'" Burney-Clark said districts are telling DeSantis.
Some have noted the push for bans against mask mandates runs counter to the traditional Republican political ethos of limited government and "local control," or leaving decision-making on things like community ordinances and schools up to officials in the area.
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., said he opposes DeSantis' orders against school mask mandates, saying on CNN Sunday, "The local official should have control here."
One Republican governor has backtracked. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison called the state's lawmakers into special session to consider loosening a ban on mask mandates he now says he regrets having signed in April. A judge has already temporarily blocked the ban.
But not all school districts are pushing mask mandates, either. After Kentucky Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear ordered masking rules in his state's schools, some superintendents applauded. One offered a voicemail call to parents that blasted the governor as a "liberal lunatic" and added that "the professional opinion of your superintendent doesn't matter. The opinion of your school board doesn't matter."
In Virginia, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, argues that the CDC's latest recommendations serve as a de facto mask mandate for schools since a state law passed in March requires following federal guidance. Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has vowed not to mandate masks in schools if elected, saying, "This should be a decision that parents can make."
Unlike DeSantis, Abbott and many other leading Republicans, Youngkin has prioritized his business experience as a former private equity manager more than his loyalty to former President Donald Trump — little surprise in a state President Joe Biden carried by 10 percentage points. Still, his comments show that mask opposition has grown beyond ardent pro-Trumpers.
Monmouth University polling released last week found that 73% of Republicans oppose bringing back masking and social distancing guidelines, while 85% of Democrats support doing so. Independents were more deeply divided, with 42% in support and 55% opposed.
"It's expanded beyond the people you initially see at the Trump rallies," Patrick Murray, Monmouth's polling director, said of Republican mask opposition. But he also noted that so much of the party has now absorbed the former president's message that "all of those people who were considered moderate Republicans in the past have become, on almost every issue now, nearly lockstep with whatever the Donald Trump position is."
Support for masks in classrooms may be higher. A Gallup survey in late July found that 57% of parents with school-age children favor mask mandates for unvaccinated students — whose ranks dominate elementary schools because vaccines are only available for people age 12 and over.
A May poll by the RAND Corporation found that such attitudes break sharply along racial lines. Some 86% of Black parents, 78% of Hispanic parents and 89% of Asian parents said mask mandates for adults and children needed to be in place for them to feel safe in sending their children to school, compared with 53% of white parents who felt that way.
RAND senior policy researcher Heather Schwartz, the study's lead author, said one possible reason for the differences could be that parents in rural areas, which tend to be whiter, are more likely to oppose anti-COVID measures. Another may be the virus having killed minority Americans at higher rates than whites, she said.
The same survey found that 26% of white parents and 29% of rural parents felt schools should fully return to normal this fall. Schwartz said some of those respondents wrote things like "the government doesn't need to tell us what to do" in their responses.
"There's a sort of general masking attitude that's spilling over into schools," Schwartz said, "rather than the reverse."