Aug. 14 (UPI) — U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent letters to Republican governors in Florida and Texas, urging them to reverse rules banning school mask mandates.
The letters sent Friday said the Department of Education stands with local leaders and school administrators who have adopted the masking requirements based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance despite the bans, USA Today reported.
Earlier in the week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened the pay of school officials who defy his ban against mandating students to wear masks, which he said in executive order violates the rights of parents under state law to make health care decisions for their minor children.
Several Florida counties have announced mask mandates anyway, with Leon, Broward, Duval, Orange, Seminole, Hillsborough and Palm Beach counties among them.
“The department recognizes that several school districts in your state have already moved to adopt such policies in line with guidance from the CDC for the reopening and operation of school facilities despite the state level prohibitions,” Cardona wrote to DeSantis. “The department stands with these dedicated educators who are working to safely reopen schools and maintain safe-in-person instruction.”
On Friday, a group of parents with disabilities also filed a federal lawsuit against Florida’s ban, saying it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Four teachers in South Florida died of COVID-19 within a 24-period earlier this week amid the growing political fight and surge of the disease statewide.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has similarly issued an executive order banning school mask mandates while some districts have defied the order, including the Houston Independent School Board, which is the largest school board in the state, Austin and Dallas, among others.
“Texas’ recent actions to block school districts from voluntarily adopting science-based strategies for preventing the spread of COVID-19 … may infringe upon a school district’s authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law,” Cardona wrote to Abbott.
In Texas, the ban has prompted some counties to sue the state with district judges blocking the mask mandate bans in Dallas and Travis counties.
The letters come amid a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country among children, with the Delta variant accounting for up to 90% of all infections among kids.
In particular, Florida has the highest number of hospitalizations per 100,000 for COVID-19 nationwide in the last seven days, The New York Times database shows. Florida also has the third highest number of cases per 100,000 over the same period, trailing only Mississippi and Louisiana.
Also, over the last seven days, Florida has the fourth highest rate of deaths per 100,000, trailing only Nevada, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Texas has the ninth highest rate of deaths per 100,000 over the last seven days.
While Texas has a lower hospitalization, case, and death rate than Florida over the last seven days, the number of people hospitalized in Texas with COVID-19 is increasing faster than at any other point since the pandemic began, USA Today reported. And in Houston, some hospitals are operating under “internal disaster” codes, which mean ambulances are diverted since the emergency department has too many acutely ill patients, according to local outlets.
In Arizona, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has also signed an executive order to ban mask mandates in schools, but Phoenix Union High School District has went ahead with a COVID-19 mask for students indoors, citing the spread of the Delta variant and updated CDC guidance.
Other states that have banned mask mandates including Arizona, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Utah, EdWeek reported, noting that there was also similar ban in Arkansas, but a judge has halted the state law.
Earlier this month, Cardona criticized governors who banned mask mandates as schools work towards re-opening in-person learning after COVID-19 pandemic closures during a White House press conference.
“Our kids have suffered enough,” Cardona told reporters.
President Joe Biden spoke Friday night with Phoenix Union School District Superintendent Chad Geston to thank him for his leadership and commitment for getting students back to school in a safe way, according to a White House statement. He had a similar conversation with the Broward County, Fla., Public Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright the same night.
Biden added that schools have resources to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic because of the American Rescue Plan and guidance through the Department of Education’s “Return to School Roadmap.”
Oregon still has a lower number of hospitalizations per 100,000 than Florida and Texas over the last seven days, but its rate of hospitalizations has surged more in the past couple weeks.
The surge in Oregon hospitalizations due to the spread of the Delta variant has prompted Gov. Kate Brown to announce deployment of up to 1,500 Oregon National Guard members to support frontline hospital workers.
Across the country, 290,840 new cases and 1,923 new deaths were reported Friday.
The United States has the highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths world wide at over 36 million cases and over 620,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins global map of COVID-19 cases and deaths.
More than 59% of the U.S. population age 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
A vaccine for children under 12 has not yet been approved. A Food and Drug Administration official told NBC News last month emergency approval for such vaccination could come in early to midwinter.