(AP) — 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 mandates. 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battles play out greater than in Texas, where some counties and school districts kept in place mask mandates and others rescinded them as schools reopened after Sunday’s court ruling.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.
At least 11 Arizona districts accounting for 140,000 students and more than 200 schools have defied a mask mandate ban by imposing their own requirements for face coverings.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Randall Warner on Monday allowed the Phoenix Union High School District to keep its mask mandate despite a new state law that he says does not take effect until Sept. 29. Warner said state law grants school boards authority to protect their students.
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.