Kids will die because Republican governors Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas are using the pandemic to score political points with a radicalized minority of Americans.
Their No. 1 job as governors is to protect the lives of their constituents. But where adults have the luxury of choosing whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19, children have been rendered uniquely vulnerable to what is now a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," as my colleague Mark Sumner wrote. Kids old enough to get vaccinated (12-17) are still at the mercy of the views of their parents, far too many of whom are more fearful of the vaccines than of the delta variant currently hospitalizing considerably more children than earlier in the pandemic.
But even more defenseless is the under-12 cohort of children who aren't yet eligible to get the vaccine. That vulnerability has been compounded as kids finally return to the in-person learning so critical to their growth, development, and mental health.
What can protect those children, however, is universal in-school masking for students and staff. It's been studied by Duke University researchers who tracked COVID-19 transmission in North Carolina K-12 schools across 100 school districts, 14 charter schools, 160,549 school staffers, and more than 864,515 students attending in-school instruction.
"We have learned a few things for certain," wrote the researchers, Dr. Kanecia Zimmerman, associate professor of pediatrics at the Duke University School of Medicine, and Dr. Danny Benjamin, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Duke Health. "Although vaccination is the best way to prevent COVID-19, universal masking is a close second, and with masking in place, in-school learning is safe and more effective than remote instruction, regardless of community rates of infection."
In a follow-up interview with PBS News Hour, Dr. Benjamin stressed the efficacy of universal in-school masking.
"What we found was despite having extremely widespread COVID in the communities in North Carolina, if universal masking is in place, the chances of one child infecting another is less than 1 percent," he said.
Voluntary masking, on the other hand, is about as useless as universal masking is effective.
"Having a voluntary mask policy is like having a no-peeing section of a pool or a no-smoking section on an airplane," Dr. Benjamin explained. "That's absurd."
The science is so clear that it reveals the utter moral depravity of DeSantis and Abbott championing their statewide bans on mask mandates at the expense of the children they are supposed to be protecting. Frankly, it's sickening, which is exactly why some school administrators in Florida and Texas have chosen to defy the prohibitions on masking requirements set forth by their governors.
"What if a child dies on my watch?" Austin Independent School District Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told CNN, explaining the district's decision to require universal masking. "How do I go say to you, 'I'm really sorry, we did everything we could. The governor's executive order kept me from ...' What does that do to a parent?" Elizalde said.
In Florida, Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna echoed the sentiment.
“I did a lot of soul searching, a lot of thinking,” Hanna said. “If, heaven forbid, we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor of the state of Florida. I can’t.”
Hanna legitimately could blame DeSantis, of course, but for him, it's clearly too unconscionable to lay the responsibility at someone else's feet when he has the power to take action.
DeSantis is now trying to exact revenge on Hanna and at least two other school administrators who have stepped up to protect the children he happily threw to wolves. On Monday, the maniacal governor threatened to dock superintendents’ salaries in school districts that have chosen to defy his order.
Responding to the news, Broward County School Board Chair Rosalind Osgood offered, “I guess I’ll go to my community to set up a GoFundMe or work at McDonald’s. At least I’ll be able to have a moral conscience and know I didn’t put someone’s life at risk."
The fact we are even forced to discuss the politics of putting kids' lives at risk is unfathomable. But that is exactly where the extremist ideology of today’s Republican Party has landed us. The message of DeSantis and Abbott is crystal clear: Sorry, kids, you're on your own. The GOP has turned into such a pro-plague death cult that both governors are more than happy to put children’s lives on the line to score a few political points with their base.
Even worse, DeSantis hasn't distributed a single cent of the pandemic relief funding provided by the federal government to help schools across the nation reopen safely this fall. It's not chump change. In total, Florida received $7,043,370,152 from the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, according to reporting from WFLA.
In response, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is looking for ways "for the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science, do the right thing, and save lives." Specifically, the White House might provide funding directly to those districts.
In the meantime, some Democratic governors, even in red states, are taking their responsibility to protect kids to heart. This week, Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, signed an order requiring everyone in K-12 schools and child care facilities to wear a mask. On Wednesday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom also became the first governor in the nation to require teachers to either get vaccinated or undergo weekly tests for COVID-19. Newsom, who is currently facing a recall in the state, is measuring both the politics and moral obligations very differently from Abbott and DeSantis.
“We think it’ll be well-received to keep our most precious resource healthy and safe,” he said, “and that’s our children.”
Moral depravity plays best when it goes unchallenged. That is not what's happening here. It may be playing just fine for voters who sequester themselves in the vacuous silos of right-wing media. But for the remaining 60% to 65% of Americans, the dereliction of duty demonstrated by these GOP governors is most certainly being exposed by the courageous stands of others—local officials, in particular.
DeSantis, Abbott, and other GOP governors are now the face of the delta surge, brought to you by an extremist anti-science, pro-pandemic Republican Party. If justice indeed exists in this universe, the GOP's willingness to sacrifice the lives of children in service of political gain will sink the party in 2022 just like it sank Donald Trump in 2020.