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Vaccine mandates ordered in New York City, New Jersey schools as masking battle escalates in Florida

Eight-year-old Jason Melendez, center, carries boxes of facial tissues and a bag of cleaning supplies as he joins classmates for the first day of in-class learning since the start of the pandemic at Garden Place Elementary School in north Denver on Aug. 23. (David Zalubowski/AP)
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The 2021-22 school year started Monday for hundreds of thousands of students across the country as battles over mask mandates escalated, and the federal government’s full approval of a coronavirus vaccine gave officials a new weapon to stop the spread of the delta variant on campuses.

Not long after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval early Monday to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — seen as a boost to schools, businesses and government agencies that want to mandate vaccines — New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced Monday that all education staff must be vaccinated.

Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine wins full FDA approval

The mayor set a deadline of Sept. 27 for more than 148,000 New York City education staff members — including teachers, contractor workers and central office workers — to have a first shot, and they will have to prove they have been vaccinated.

Implementation details of the mandate in the district — the largest in the country — still need to be negotiated with various unions. But de Blasio said that the FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — seen as a boost to schools, businesses and government agencies that want to mandate vaccines — is a “game-changing moment.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio on Aug. 23 said all New York City public school teachers and staff will be required to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. (Video: Reuters)

Many Americans have said they were hesitant to get vaccinated because the FDA had given only emergency status to coronavirus vaccines, but that is no longer the case with Pfizer.

“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” de Blasio said. “This helps us move forward.”

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) also ordered a vaccine mandate on Monday for all school staff, joining at least four other states that have already done so: Washington, California, Connecticut and Oregon.

“Strong masking and vaccination protocols, in tandem with other safety measures, are our best consolidated tool for keeping our schools open for full-time, in-person instruction,” Murphy said.

In California, the 7,000-student Culver City Unified district near Los Angeles is what may be the first school system in the country to require that students eligible for the vaccine must be vaccinated as well as staff. (Those 12 and older are eligible to be vaccinated.)

In a letter sent late last week to parents, Superintended Quoc Tran announced that the deadline for providing proof of vaccine is Nov. 19 — and that everyone inside schools must wear masks, too, regardless of vaccination status.

Chicago Public Schools is also requiring all staff members to be vaccinated — as is the San Antonio Independent School District in Texas, which is bucking Gov. Greg Abbott (R), who has banned mask and vaccine mandates and threatened to sue districts that defy him.

“For us it’s not about politics,” Pedro Martinez, superintendent of the San Antonio district said in an interview. “We are responding to the needs of the community and what they expect of us.”

When schools opened two weeks ago, he said, cases started to rise and children had to be quarantined. “If we didn’t put the mandates in place, he said, we would be risking safety and stability in our classrooms,” he said.

According to a new poll, a majority of Americans believe students and teachers should be required to wear masks in schools, and that vaccines should be mandated for all adults and students 12 and over. There is still no vaccine available to students younger than 12.

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that 59 percent of Americans support vaccination requirements for teachers and 55 percent for eligible students. Fifty-nine percent support mask mandates.

As some states and school districts moved forward with vaccine mandates, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and his administration pressed their war against districts that defied him by requiring masks be worn in schools.

More than 350,000 students started the new year in Miami Dade County Public Schools, one of eight districts that have imposed mask mandates — against an explicit order by DeSantis to let parents decide on masking — as covid rates have skyrocketed in the state.

Pediatric cases are sharply rising, too, across Florida, with as much as one-quarter of the new cases being reported in people under 19 and hospitalization rates of young people rising as well.

Some parents worry Florida schools aren't doing enough to protect their kids from the coronavirus as Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) doubles down on his mask mandate ban. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

DeSantis is moving ahead to punish districts that have mask mandates, first targeting those in Alachua and Broward counties because they were the first to require masks.

Battle over school masking escalates in Florida

On Friday, state officials demanded they drop the mandates or school board members who supported the mask requirements would lose their pay. On Monday, they demanded at least one of the districts provide compensation information for those board members so they can start withholding their pay. The Florida Board of Education planned an emergency meeting to grill the superintendents of a few other districts that imposed mask mandates.

Late Monday, Duval County’s board of education voted for a mask mandate, following Leon County Superintendent Rocky Hanna, who announced on Facebook late Sunday that covid cases were rising one week after school started and he had to toughen an earlier masking policy. Duval and Leon counties joined Miami, Broward, Alachua, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Sarasota in requiring a medical exemption from a doctor to not wear a mask.

Florida elected officials can be suspended by the governor. Hanna was elected, though most school chiefs are appointed.

Jared M. Ochs, director of communications for the Florida Department of Education, said in an email, “It is important to remember that this issue is about ensuring that local school board members — elected officials — follow the law. They cannot pick and choose what laws they want to follow.”