Across the country, as students and teachers head back into school buildings in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, school superintendents in Florida, Texas and Arizona are standing firm against state leaders who say masks shouldn't be mandated in classrooms.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration reinforced its support for those school leaders.
"I'm directing the secretary of education, an educator himself, to take additional steps to protect our children," President Biden said at a White House press conference Wednesday. "This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors who are trying to block and intimidate local school officials and educators."
Also on Wednesday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a blog post that the Education Department will be looking into whether state policies, including bans on mask mandates, "may infringe on the rights of every student to access public education equally."
In late July, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an executive order aimed at preventing schools from adopting mask mandates. On Tuesday, Florida's State Board of Education authorized the education commissioner to investigate districts that require universal mask-wearing and potentially to withhold state funding.
Meanwhile, many Florida students are already back at home quarantining after starting the school year in person. Hillsborough County, the nation's eighth largest school district, is convening an emergency school board meeting on Wednesday to discuss mitigation measures — including a possible mask requirement — after more than 5,000 students were put in isolation or quarantine.
In Alachua County, school started last week with mask mandates in place; masks are also required in Broward County when students return on Wednesday. Miami-Dade County, the fourth largest school district in the country, will finalize its masking policy on Wednesday, just days before students return to classrooms next week.
In a Friday letter to Florida's governor and education commissioner, Cardona wrote, "The Department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe in-person instruction."
Carlee Simon, superintendent of Alachua County Public Schools, told NPR's All Things Considered last week that people have contacted her from all over the world about fundraising to make up for any cuts from the state.
"I believe that there's a lot of people who are watching, and they're concerned," she said, "and they don't want people to let go of their principles because they're worried about money."
In his letter, Cardona offered another solution. He pointed out that American Rescue Plan funds provide money for staffing: "This includes paying the full salaries of educators (including superintendents) and school board members, regardless of whether the State moves to withhold some of their salary as Florida is threatening."
During a Tuesday emergency meeting, Florida's State Board of Education voted to authorize the education commissioner to investigate Broward and Alachua schools, directing him to "take all legal steps" to enforce rules and laws in Florida, including the state's prohibition on mask mandates.
That enforcement "may include withholding funds from the district — although I would add a footnote that I do not want to withhold funds in a way that would harm any child in any district," Board Chair Tom Grady said during the meeting. "It may involve withholding salaries, it may involve removing officers, it may involve reviewing district conduct, it may involve public records requests to see how monies are being spent within the district," among other things.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned mask mandates in an executive order this spring, but as in Florida, a handful of school districts in the state — including Dallas, Austin and San Antonio — have announced masking requirements anyway.
In a Friday letter to Abbott and the state education commissioner, Cardona reiterated that school districts can use American Rescue Plan funds to implement mask policies, conduct contact tracing and pay for any other measures in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendations for reopening schools.
Now, school districts are caught in the middle of a legal tug of war: On Sunday, the Texas Supreme Court issued a temporary order to stop Dallas County and Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, from mandating face coverings. While some school districts walked back their masking plans, on Monday, classes began in Dallas with a mask mandate still in place. That's because the court order focused on Dallas County, and not the schools there, Dallas Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said in a virtual press conference Sunday night.
"Until there's an official order that applies to Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate," he said. "We have to protect the health and safety of our students."
Hinojosa added that students who refuse to wear a mask will be moved to a separate classroom for instruction.
Adding to confusion is the fact that the state Supreme Court ruling wasn't the final word: It allowed a district court hearing on Monday to go on — and that judge ruled that schools in Bexar County and the city of San Antonio can require masks for the time being.
One school district there, North East Independent School District, posted on its website, "It is unfortunate that schools and our community are being caught in the middle of this legal and political fight. It is unfair to our parents, students and staff." It had reversed masking plans after the state Supreme Court ruling.
The budget that the Arizona Legislature passed this summer includes a prohibition on mask mandates in schools, but, for the time being, that prohibition is not holding some school districts back from enforcing their requirements for face coverings.
On Monday, a judge in Arizona declined to step in to stop Phoenix Union High School District, which serves almost 30,000 students, from keeping its mask mandate. A handful of other districts, including Tempe Union High School District, announced their own mask requirements after the ruling.
As NPR member station KJZZ reported, the legal battle began when a high school biology teacher sued Phoenix Union, along with the superintendent and the governing board, arguing that the schools "lack the legal authority to mandate that students and staff wear masks." But the school district argued that the lawsuit was premature because the budget won't take effect until the end of September. A Maricopa County Superior Court judge agreed but didn't throw the lawsuit out completely; the biology teacher can still amend his complaint.
Similar battles over mask requirements could play out in Iowa over the coming weeks. Most schools haven't started there yet, but a state law passed in the spring bans them from requiring masks. Some parents and doctors are already pleading with districts to follow the lead of defiant superintendents in Florida and Texas.
Most school-age children are not yet vaccinated against the coronavirus. 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.