CNN  — 

The back-to-school season is turning into a frightening one for parents and children as they find themselves in the middle of political skirmishes over mask and vaccine mandates, leaving students’ safety determined more by geography and the political whims of governors than the science that should be guiding best practices.

In this dangerous new phase of the pandemic, when the seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases is topping 100,000, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other acolytes of former President Donald Trump have made school mask requirements the new front in the Covid culture wars.

Republicans like DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, both potential 2024 presidential contenders if Trump doesn’t run, are trying to burnish their conservative credentials by holding fast to their bans on mask mandates, which are increasingly headed to the courts. Under the guise of giving parents control, these Republicans have dispensed with the long-cherished GOP principle of local control and are taking a life-and-death gamble with children’s lives.

At the same time, many teachers’ unions – who are normally allied with Democrats – have balked at the idea of vaccine mandates, a stance that is seemingly at odds with their insistence last year that students and teachers should not return to the classroom until it was safe. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, failed to come up with a linear explanation of their positioning Friday on CNN’s “New Day,” stating that if a city or jurisdiction requests a vaccine requirement for schools, the unions would be “bargaining over those policies.”

The dogged obstruction on common-sense safety measures coming from both ends of the political spectrum is unnerving parents, many of whom still worry about the lack of data about the long-haul effects of Covid on children – particularly those under the age of 12, who are still not eligible for Covid-19 vaccines.

A report from the American Academy of Pediatrics last month noted that although “it appears” that severe illness due to Covid-19 is “uncommon” among children, “there is an urgent need to collect more data on longer-term impacts of the pandemic on children, including ways the virus may harm the long-term physical health of infected children.”

US Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona made a plea Sunday for political and education leaders not to stand in the way of safety measures that would do the most to protect school children. He said he has personally reached out directly to many governors, including Abbott and Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who recently changed his position on banning mask mandates in schools.

“To those who are making policies that are preventing this, don’t be the reason why schools are interrupted, why children can’t go to extracurricular activities, why games are canceled,” Cardona said Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.” “We need to do our part as leaders like Gov. Hutchinson is doing, to make sure that they have access to the decision that they need to make to get their students safely back in school.”

Florida’s Covid surge tests DeSantis

DeSantis’ reckless experiment with turning his state into a zone of “no restrictions and no mandates” could yield some alarming results as the Delta variant ravages the state.

On Friday, Florida reported more Covid-19 cases over the past week than any other seven-day period during the pandemic, and the state has accounted for about one in five of the nation’s new Covid cases over the past couple of weeks. But in stark contrast with this time last year, public health officials are beginning to sound the alarm about the impact on children.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert at Florida International University, told CNN’s Jim Sciutto last week that “our children’s hospitals are completely overwhelmed.”

“Our pediatricians, the nursing, the staff are exhausted, and the children are suffering, and it is absolutely devastating,” Marty said on CNN’s “AC360” Friday night. “Our children are very much affected. We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”

While some school districts in Florida are ignoring DeSantis’ order by requiring masks – daring him to carry out his threat to withhold funding from those that defy him – a group of parents with school-aged children from counties all over the state are now also challenging the constitutionality of his executive order in court.

Charles Gallagher, an attorney working on the lawsuit, told CNN’s Rosa Flores that “they are framing this as a parent choice issue when this is really a public health issue.” The lawsuit, which notes that the Florida constitution mandates a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools,” accuses DeSantis and other state officials of usurping the powers of local school districts to make decisions for themselves.

DeSantis’ order, the lawsuit argues, “wrongfully assumes that state authorities can better determine the local health risks and educational needs of students and teachers than the local officials that were elected for that purpose.”

“The community spread that will inevitably result from the unsafe reopening of schools without a mask mandate will yield unfortunate and avoidable increases in disease, long-term health complications, and deaths across Leon County and the State of Florida,” the lawsuits says.

Some Florida school districts are trying to get around DeSantis’ order with verbal gymnastics. Hillsborough County Public Schools in Tampa, for example, said on Saturday that the district will “require face coverings” when schools open, but they will allow parents to “opt out” if they fill out a form stating they don’t want their child to wear a mask.

Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools Albert Carvalho said Sunday on “Face the Nation” that his school system is trying to work through a safe school reopening strategy while avoiding the “punitive defunding strategies” that could be a consequence of defying DeSantis’ order.

“It is sad that currently in America we see this rhetorical narrative that’s deeply influenced by politics rather than medicine and the wise advice of those who know best what’s in the best interests of our students and the professionals who teach them,” Carvalho said. “We ought to pay less attention to the loud voices that are often disconnected from reason and focus our attention on students, teachers, and healthy, protective environments,” he said, adding that the strategy should include some degree of “parental choice.”

Trouble for school-aged children in other states

In some states where schools have already opened, the anecdotal results of students heading back to the classroom without masks in places with high community transmission are not encouraging.

Fifth and sixth grade classes at Ellsworth Elementary School in Pinal County, Arizona – where the governor and legislature banned mask mandates – are already back in remote learning two weeks into the school year due to Covid cases. In a letter to the governor this week, more than 150 Arizona doctors urged GOP Gov. Doug Ducey to reverse course, arguing that scientists don’t yet know the impact on young brains.

In Arkansas, a judge has temporarily prevented the state from enforcing its law banning masks mandates in schools. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Tim Fox issued a preliminary injunction last week in response to two lawsuits, one from officials from the Marion School District, which has more than 900 students and a dozen teachers in quarantine after discovering positive cases during the first two weeks of school.

Even before that injunction, Hutchinson had been one of the few GOP governors who has said publicly that he regrets preventing the state’s school districts from making their own decisions with that state’s ban.

“Facts change and leaders have to adjust to the new facts,” Hutchinson said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” “Whenever I signed that law cases were low. We were hoping that the whole thing was gone in terms of the virus, but it roared back with the Delta variant. … I realized that we needed to have more options for our local school districts to protect those children.”

This story has been updated with additional details Sunday.