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Students Are Going Back To School Without Clarity On COVID-19 Protections

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of American schoolchildren are heading back to classrooms, this time amid the highly contagious delta variant and widespread confusion about how to best keep them and educators safe. Some school districts are mandating mask wearing for everyone. Elsewhere, elected officials say absolutely not. And in many communities, the situation changes almost daily. Sequoia Carrillo from the NPR Ed team is here to help us sort all of this out.

Sequoia, thanks for being with us.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There's advice and guidance on this from the Biden administration, from states, from local districts. What does it look like nationwide right now?

CARRILLO: Right now, a lot of the controversy is focused on mask mandates and mask bans. Arizona, Texas and Florida are really the battleground states for this issue. On Wednesday, Hillsborough County and Miami-Dade County, both in the top 10 biggest school districts in the country, decided to go against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' executive order and institute mask mandates. The situation in Florida this week mirrors the one that's been playing out in Texas over the past few weeks, with huge districts in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio also requiring masks in schools despite the statewide ban.

SIMON: And the Biden administration has stepped into this debate. What do we know from there?

CARRILLO: Yes. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent letters to superintendents in Texas and Florida this week to reinforce his support of their mask mandates. President Joe Biden also issued direct support during a press conference on Wednesday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm directing the secretary of education, an educator himself, to take additional steps to protect our children. This includes using all of his oversight's authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators.

SIMON: So that's the word from the executive branch. But the matter of masks is in a number of courts, isn't it? How's that look?

CARRILLO: Yes. Right now in Texas and in a lot of these other states, things are really a back-and-forth mess. And the parents and the kids are caught in the middle. There have been decisions going both ways in Texas courts. And even after the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the mask mandates, they weren't the final ruling. The court allowed a district court hearing on Monday to go on, and that judge ruled that schools in Bear County and the city of San Antonio can require masks for the time being.

SIMON: What I gather from all this is that mask mandates are really just all over the place. And what about vaccines, either for students and our teachers?

CARRILLO: Well, right now, most school-age children are not yet vaccinated. Students under 12 aren't currently eligible for the vaccine. And according to the CDC, vaccination rates for older kids are still far behind rates for adults. There's lots of debates about whether schools can or should mandate vaccinations for teachers. States like Oregon and Washington have already announced vaccine mandates for school workers. Governor Phil Murphy is expected to announce one for New Jersey in the coming days. And the response has been mixed. Many teachers unions, like the National Education Association, don't support a blanket vaccine mandate, but something more like New Mexico's approach, which allows for regular testing as an alternative to vaccination. But school is starting soon. In many places, it's already in session. So we'll know more in the next few weeks and see if districts change course.

SIMON: Sequoia Carrillo of the NPR Ed team, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRILLO: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.