TUESDAY, Aug. 31, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- The debate over masks in schools intensified on Monday, as the U.S. Education Department launched a civil rights investigation into mask mandate bans in five states while Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made good on his promise to slash funds to school districts that have defied his ban.
Why a federal investigation? Such bans may restrict access to classrooms for disabled students who are at high risk for severe COVID-19, the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights stated in a letter notifying education leaders in Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah of the investigation.
"The Department has heard from parents from across the country -- particularly parents of students with disabilities and with underlying medical conditions -- about how state bans on universal indoor masking are putting their children at risk and preventing them from accessing in-person learning equally," U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement announcing the investigation.
"It's simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve," Cardona added. "The Department will fight to protect every student's right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall."
Letters were not sent to Florida, Texas, Arkansas or Arizona, all of which have tried to ban mask mandates, because the policies in those states are already being challenged by court orders or other state actions, according to the Washington Post.
That did not stop Florida's Education Department from making good on financially punishing local school boards that defy the state's mask mandate ban.
Now experiencing the worst outbreak of coronavirus in the nation, Florida is seeing higher cases counts and hospitalizations than ever before in the pandemic: Over the last seven days, an average of more than 16,000 people have been hospitalized each day, more than has been seen during any other period in the pandemic, The New York Times reported.
Still, Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said in a statement on Monday that his department would "fight" to protect the rights of parents to make health care decisions. "They know what is best for their children," he wrote.
The financial penalty applies to two Florida school districts — Alachua County and Broward County — that went ahead with mask mandates. In response to the withholding of funds, Broward County interim superintendent Vickie Cartwright said in a statement that "the health and safety of our students, teachers and staff continue to be our main priorities. As such, [the Broward County school system] will continue to mandate masks."
Exactly how much the two school boards will be affected is unclear, because the Biden administration has advised that any school district stripped of state funding over pandemic precautions could use federal stimulus funds to make up the difference, the Times reported.
The civil rights investigation follows the Biden administration's promise to use legal action to intervene in states where mask mandates are prohibited in public schools.
Daily average of COVID hospitalizations in US hits 100,000
In another grim reminder of the toll that the pandemic continues to take on Americans, the daily average for hospitalized COVID-19 patients is now higher than any previous case surge except last winter.
As that daily average topped 100,000, coronavirus deaths have also risen to an average of more than 1,000 a day for the first time since March, the Times reported.
In the past two months, hospitalizations nationwide have increased by nearly 500 percent, fueled by the rapid spread of the highly infectious Delta variant and a large pool of unvaccinated Americans. Things are particularly dire across Southern states, which have some of the country's lowest vaccination rates and widespread opposition to mask mandates.
As cases and hospitalizations surged in Tennessee, the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville on Thursday requested assistance from the National Guard.
"I've never seen anything quite like it," Dr. Shannon Byrd, a pulmonologist in Knoxville, told the Times. "It's bringing whole families down and tearing families apart. They're dying in droves and leaving surviving loved ones with a lot of funerals to go to."
With the latest surge overwhelming hospitals, a nursing shortage has hindered treatment of coronavirus patients, leading to longer emergency room waiting times and rushed or inadequate care, the Times reported.
This month alone, 1 in 5 ICUs reached or exceeded 95 percent of beds full. As in earlier surges, hospitals have been forced to create makeshift ICUs in areas typically reserved for other types of care, and even set up beds in hallways or spare rooms, the Times reported. Experts say maintaining existing standards of care for the sickest patients may be difficult or impossible at hospitals with more than 95 percent ICU occupancy.
Dr. Ijlal Babar, director of pulmonary critical care for the Singing River Health System in coastal Mississippi, said the influx of mostly unvaccinated, younger COVID-19 patients was hampering care across the system's hospitals.
"Because a lot of these patients are lingering on, the ventilators are occupied, the beds are occupied," he told the Times. "And a lot of other patients who need health care, we can't do those things, because we don't have the ICU beds, we don't have the nurses, we don't have the ventilators."
Like many health care workers, Babar is frustrated with the refusal of many residents to get inoculated, even after they had lost an unvaccinated family member to the virus.
"The families, you don't see them going out and talking about the benefits of vaccine," he said. "Nobody brings it up, nobody expresses any remorse. It's just something that they absolutely do not believe in."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID-19.
SOURCES: Washington Post; The New York Times