Republicans take to mask wars as virus surges in red states

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Republicans are battling school districts in their own states’ urban, heavily Democratic areas over whether students should be required to mask up as they head back to school — reigniting ideological divides over mandates even as the latest coronavirus surge ravages the reddest, most unvaccinated parts of the nation.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida has issued an executive order threatening to cut funding from school districts that defy a statewide ban on classroom mask mandates.

He’s now suggesting his office could direct officials to withhold pay from superintendents who impose such rules anyway.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster is threatening to withhold funding to schools in his state’s capital of Columbia over masking rules, while Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to enforce a similar order against mask mandates — despite large school districts around the state, including Dallas and Austin, promising to go ahead with classroom face-covering requirements.

Even the Republican gubernatorial candidate in the purple state of Virginia has decried school mask mandates in the name of parental rights.

The posture comes with some clear political incentives for Republicans.

The party’s base has opposed mask rules for more than a year and has long recoiled at the word “mandate.”

Still, some within the GOP’s own ranks have begun to warn of the safety and political risks involved in making schools — and children’s health — the chief battleground for an ideological fight.

“It’s very visceral,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist in Texas. “We’re approaching this very tribalisticly, very angrily, very politically,” he said, adding that both sides are digging in “instead of trying to get together, I believe, at the most local level possible, and saying, ’Hey, let’s try and work out what’s best.’”

It all comes as some Democrat-run states are moving in the opposite direction, reimposing masking rules for classrooms and other public spaces after easing them in recent months, when it seemed the pandemic might be waning.

That’s consistent with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations that children mask up in school.

A recent report by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association found that nearly 4.3 million U.S. COVID-19 cases have affected children.

That’s about 14% of all cases nationwide, though the report said hospitalization and death among children is “uncommon.”

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