Just days into the new academic year, tens of thousands of students are under quarantine in school districts across the U.S.—with many states where mask mandates are banned reporting some of the most severe outbreaks—as the delta variant continues to drive skyrocketing infections among children.
One school district alone has more than 8,000 students and 300 staff quarantining or isolating: Hillsborough County Public Schools, which includes Tampa, has scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to consider defying Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state-wide ban on mask mandates.
Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina, states where Republican governors have similarly restricted schools from mandating masks, all have thousands of students quarantining, with the latter two already seeing some districts temporarily close due to outbreaks.
Texas, where the state Supreme Court this week ruled to allow Gov. Greg Abbott’s order banning masks in schools and temporarily blocked two counties from imposing their own mandates, has seen four different school districts close in recent days as cases surge.
Though they don’t have the same restrictions on mask mandates, a number of states with vaccination rates below the national average also have high numbers of students and school staff quarantining after their return to school, including Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Mississippi appears to have more children quarantining for Covid-19 exposure than any other state in the country—about 20,000 (or 4.5% of the entire public school population) as of Tuesday—and had its fifth child die from the virus last week: a 13-year-old eighth grader who died a day after testing positive.
One school district in Iowa, where mask mandates are also banned, is not requiring students to quarantine if they have been exposed to a person who has Covid-19. “At this time, our public health authorities have informed us that the district may not quarantine students,” Erick Pruitt, the superintendent of Ankeny, the sixth-largest district in Iowa, wrote in a letter to parents in July.
9. That’s how many states have enacted measures that prohibit schools from requiring mask mandates: Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Arizona (though Arizona’s doesn’t go into effect until Sept. 29). Arkansas also imposed a mask mandate ban, but it was halted by a state court while a challenge moves forward and the governor has also said he regrets the action.
“We’re living out the nightmare of the Covid pandemic, where so many people in our county, including members of our staff and others, are being impacted,” Rosalind Osgood, the chairwoman of Florida’s Broward County School Board, one of a number of districts defying DeSantis’ executive order, told CBS on Sunday. “We believe that we have a constitutional obligation to protect the lives of our students and staff.”
The heated battles over coronavirus safety protocols in schools come as the hyper infectious delta variant drives massive surges in infections among children. Reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics show kids are making up an increasingly large proportion of the U.S.’s total infections, with the 120,000 children who tested positive last week comprising nearly a fifth of all new cases. Weekly Covid-19 cases among kids have jumped more than 200% from mid-June. The number of children hospitalized with the coronavirus is also on the rise, hitting a new pandemic high of 297 admitted each day over the past week, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The trend is the most prevalent in Southern states, many of which have hit new records for child hospitalizations amid the delta surge.
Masks mandates in schools are actually broadly popular. An Axios/Ipsos poll published Tuesday found most Americans (69%) support school mask requirements for students, teachers and staff. However, support is much lower among Republicans: only 44% back the mask orders versus 92% of Democrats. A low number of respondents (33%) support the policies imposed in Republican states banning schools and local governments from issuing their own mandates.