By Joseph Ax and Brad Brooks
July 29 (Reuters) - In pandemic-pummeled Florida, angry parents clashed with Broward County school board members this week over whether their children will be forced to wear masks in class. In South Carolina, school officials reminded parents that state lawmakers have barred mask mandates.
In states such as North Carolina and Alabama, some public school districts announced they will require face coverings for students even as neighboring counties told parents masks will remain optional.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's decision on Tuesday https://www.reuters.com/world/us/cdc-set-unveil-revised-mask-guidance-vaccinated-americans-sources-2021-07-27 to reverse course and recommend that all students and staff wear masks in school regardless of vaccination status has caused fresh confusion and frustration among parents, educators and officials just weeks before many states start the new school year with in-person learning.
The agency previously had said only unvaccinated students would need masks. The change followed a surge in U.S. COVID-19 cases stemming from the highly infectious Delta variant, particularly in areas with lower vaccination rates.
The revised guidelines intensified a raging debate over masks in schools that has again exposed deep U.S. political fault lines and created a patchwork of policies from state to state, and even town to town.
Some U.S. conservatives have called mask mandates unnecessary and oppressive and argued that liberals are exaggerating the threat of the pandemic for political reasons. The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The CDC lacks the power to mandate masks. Many local governments in Republican-controlled areas have made clear they will not order people to comply. At least seven states with Republican governors, including South Carolina, Texas and Arizona, have banned school mask requirements.
In a statement two hours after the CDC announcement, the South Carolina education department noted the new guidance but said officials' hands were tied after the state legislature barred schools from requiring masks.
The move followed Governor Henry McMaster's May executive order making masks optional in schools despite opposition from South Carolina's top education official.
Sherry East, the president of the South Carolina Education Association that represents teachers and other staffers, said teachers were left in an untenable position.
Some parents warned teachers not to distance their unmasked children from others, while other parents insisted teachers separate their masked children from those without, East said.
"You had teachers caught in the middle," East added. "And guess what wasn't happening in the classroom? Teaching."
'UNMASK OUR KIDS!'
Many parents argue that masks' negative impact on learning and social interaction is worse than the danger COVID-19 poses for school-age children.
"Unmask our kids! Let them be kids," Elon Gerberg, a parent, told Broward County school officials at a Wednesday board meeting on the issue.
The board voted to require masks when school starts on Aug. 18, citing Florida's rising infection rate. Rosalind Osgood, the board's chairwoman, said it would be "unconscionable" to endanger students and staff by making masks optional.
Officials postponed the meeting from Tuesday after protesters refused to don face coverings. One person burned masks outside the building. Wednesday's hearing proceeded with enhanced security, including strictly enforcing masks and speakers escorted into the room one at a time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended this month that students return to in-person learning, citing the toll on mental health from remote learning. It also urged all students and teachers to use masks regardless of vaccination status. It cited research showing that opening schools does not increase community transmission if masking and other measures are used.
In Miami-Dade, home of the fourth-largest U.S. public school system, schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district would reconsider whether to require masks two months after announcing they would be optional.
"We are in a different position today, where the critical elements have unfortunately trended in the wrong direction," Carvalho told reporters on Wednesday.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has opposed mask requirements.
Other large U.S. school systems, including Los Angeles and New York, have made masks mandatory. Many other locales are still grappling with the issue.
Hours after the CDC issued its new guidance, the Gaston County school board in North Carolina voted to make masks optional, prompting cheers from the audience.
Sierra Hall, a parent in attendance, called the move premature. Hall, a nursing home worker, said masks are particularly important because neither she nor her 13-year-old daughter are vaccinated.
"Why not start protecting ourselves here before our numbers go up?" Hall asked in a telephone interview after the meeting. "I feel like they are dropping the ball."
In Texas, Lakeisha Patterson, a third grade teacher in suburban Houston, expressed anger at Governor Greg Abbott's May decision to ban school mask mandates.
"I don't think Texas is the place that should be universally saying we're not going to have a mask mandate," Patterson said, noting that less than half of Texans are fully vaccinated.
Much of Texas is experiencing high levels of COVID-19 transmission, CDC data shows.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey, and Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Will Dunham and Colleen Jenkins)