More states are blocking K-12 schools and college campuses from requiring vaccines and masking, bucking recent federal recommendations that eligible students should be vaccinated and that unvaccinated students should wear masks when in-person learning resumes in coming weeks.
Bans blocking schools and colleges from requiring Covid-19 vaccination or proof of vaccination have passed in at least eight states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah. In some cases, the bans extend to other public entities and private businesses.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended that students, teachers and staff who aren’t fully vaccinated continue to wear masks indoors. It also urged schools to reopen in person while maintaining 3-foot social distancing and encouraging more families to be vaccinated.
Detractors say the bans could drive more infection. The U.S. is averaging more than 23,000 new cases a day, double the seven-day average of around 11,300 cases three weeks ago, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from Johns Hopkins University. The Delta variant, which has been thought to be about 50% more transmissible than the Alpha variant though estimates vary, is now the dominant strain in the U.S.
Supporters say the laws allow families to make their own choices about precautions.
Calling vaccination and mask requirements “one of the most contentious issues in Arkansas,” Republican state Sen.
wrote legislation banning such requirements, which passed in April. This week he stood by the law despite new CDC guidelines and surging infection rates.
“Ultimately, the best form of local control is the individual, and each individual family can make that decision,” he said.
In June, Arizona passed laws banning vaccine and mask mandates at schools and colleges starting this fall. The move followed Arizona State University’s announcement that unvaccinated students were expected to wear masks and be tested. The governor then issued an executive order, which was followed by a legislative vote, outlawing mandatory masks and Covid-19 testing in public universities, except in cases of outbreaks in dormitories, and only with the governor’s approval.
Arizona State spokesman Jay Thorne said the university will comply with the state’s rules and “follow the honor system.” The school will provide free on-campus vaccinations and testing, he said. It will continue to encourage vaccinations and recommend that unvaccinated students wear masks and get tested. Fall classes at the university begin Aug. 19.
Nearly all recent Covid-19 cases and deaths from the disease are among unvaccinated people, according to the CDC. Americans 65 or older, who are most likely to die from Covid-19 infections, have relatively high rates of vaccinations. About 25% of children ages 12 to 15, 37% of 16- and 17-year-olds and 41% of 18-to-24-year-olds have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to CDC data.
Some of the states banning vaccine requirements in schools, such as Arkansas and Alabama, have vaccination rates at or below 35% and high coronavirus infection rates compared with other states.
Dr. Chris Pernell, an American College of Preventive Medicine fellow, said schools in areas with low vaccination rates need to continue social distancing and limit intermingling. Mask requirements for both vaccinated and nonvaccinated people in high-traffic indoor places should be the minimum requirement, she said.
“If you get more infections, you will get more hospitalizations,” she said. “If you get more hospitalizations, you are likely to have an increase in deaths.”
Many school districts and colleges are planning to bring all or most students back to school for in-person instruction, although some will still also offer remote learning. Some colleges nationwide are requiring students to provide proof that they are vaccinated to live in dorms or take classes in person.
Sarah Bachtell, a parent of a high-school junior and a second-grader in the Tulsa, Okla., public schools, said teachers should be required to wear masks or be vaccinated because many of them will be working with children who can’t be vaccinated yet.
“I really don’t want to take my son to the hospital because he’s sick of Covid,” said Ms. Bachtell. “I just think it’s ridiculous that our numbers are going up again, and for some reason our state just isn’t going to take it seriously.”
The pushback against the Covid-19 safety measures comes as some schools, school districts and teachers unions are agitating in the other direction, organizing vaccine campaigns to ensure students are inoculated against the coronavirus when classes reopen.
Some parents support the bans on safety measures. Activist parents in New York City and several states are lobbying to drop mask requirements, arguing that wearing masks all day doesn’t lower infection rates and can harm students socially and emotionally and impede their learning.
Natalya Murakhver, a New York City parent, said that her two children, ages 7 and 11, have been adversely affected by the city’s mask requirement.
“They’re so dehydrated, and on hot days, they come out sweaty and exhausted, and they have headaches,” she said. “They have become more claustrophobic, and my 7-year-old started mumbling. Prior to the mask, she was speaking beautifully, but after the mask, we couldn’t understand what she was saying.”
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Rep. Kevin West, a Republican state legislator from Oklahoma who sponsored legislation signed into law that restricts schools from having mask mandates unless under a state of emergency, said he received overwhelming support. “It gives that authority to the parents,” he said.
The new Oklahoma law also prohibits schools, including higher-education institutions, from requiring students to get the Covid-19 vaccine and requiring proof of the vaccination. Medical programs in postsecondary schools are exempt from the law.
Leaders of teachers unions, an influential force that threatened to strike over safety precautions last year in cities such as Chicago and New York, said they worry that dropping the precautions could lead to school outbreaks.
“The union is very concerned about what could spike in the schools as we go back, because these variants are definitely more rampant and more contagious, according to the science,” said
president of the American Federation of Teachers’ Utah chapter.
Ms. Murakhver, the New York City parent, fears that the debate over vaccination and mask requirements will intensify and split the nation into “two Americas,” at the expense of children.
“Kids don’t have unions,” she said. “Kids have their parents, who are trying to hold things together and plan their future. And parents are fractured all over the place.”
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