In this April 13, 2021, file photo, kindergarten students sit in their classroom on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles. California health officials announced new coronavirus rules for public schools on Monday, July 12, 2021. The new rules eliminate physical distancing while making sure no one will miss class time even if they are exposed to someone with the virus. But the state would continue to require all students and staff to wear masks indoors. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

By Maya Pottiger and Aswad Walker

The Delta variant is feeding new surges in COVID-19 cases around the country weeks before school starts. On top of that, the majority of students in K-12 education are still not eligible for vaccines.

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Even though the CDC released guidelines earlier this month easing mask policies in schools, nothing was binding. As with most masking and vaccination policies, states have been left to set their own rules, putting superintendents of school districts in a tricky spot.

Except in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has refused to re-issue a mask mandate, leaving parents, teachers and students of Texas schools in a difficult situation with COVID cases reaching February levels in Houston.  

“The governor is being completely irresponsible for not considering the rise in COVID-19 cases, including the new Delta variant,” said Pamela Walker, mother of a Ft. Bend ISD 7th grader, Matthew. “In order to defeat this pandemic we must be wise and vigilant to stop the spread, especially amongst our young people and our educators.”

However, Walker is not the only parent who believes Abbott is being wreckless and far from wise.

“I’m happy that school will resume in-person learning,” shared Adrianne Walker whose youngest child, Amari, will be going into his 8th grade year at Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy. “However, I strongly disagree with not issuing a mask mandate.”

Only two other states (Utah and Vermont) have joined Texas in refusing to require their citizens to mask up. Only California and the District of Columbia require all residents to weak masks in public places.

Though most states lack Texas’ ban on mask mandates, operating without such a ban still has its own challenges.

In Rhode Island, some superintendents wish there was a state-level requirement so they didn’t have to be stuck in the middle of parents’ conflicting views. Other states fall on opposite ends of the extremes. In California, all students and teachers are required to wear masks. 

The state of Vermont is an interesting case because, having reached an 80% vaccination status, schools can no longer require masking for any student, even the unvaccinated ones.

However, the U.S. Department of Transportation said masking is universally mandatory on school buses, yet South Carolina’s Department of Education said students riding state-owned buses will no longer be required to mask up. 

Confused yet? You’re not alone. And it’s this lack of clarity, or in some cases parents viewing the clarity (mask mandates, or the lack thereof) as problematic, that has the fast-approaching K-12 school year being viewed with apprehension.

But many parents of college-aged children are just as worried.

Both Pamela Walker and Adrianne Walker, sisters-in-law, have children, Marshall Reynolds and Anana Walker, respectively, who will be freshmen this fall at the University of Houston. Adrianne has another daughter, Maisha, at UH who is entering her senior year.

All three will be in dorms this fall, a reality that slightly terrifies Adrianne due to youth summer activities nationally.

Chicago’s Lollapalooza 2021, for example, had nearly 400,000 attendees from all over the world, and few were masked up. Several health officials viewed the mega-concert as a potential super-spreader event. And though only those with a vaccination card or proof that they tested negative for COVID just days before the concert were allowed in, few believe those safeguards were enough to prevent any COVID spread.

Like Chicago, Houston has been busy with large gathering concerts thus far this summer, with even more planned. And with international travel picking up, health officials say the possibility of new COVID variants making their way to the U.S. is almost a certainty.

“All the athletes and teams who are participating in the Olympics will be returning to their home countries with new variants of COVID as schools are re-opening,” Adrianne said.

“As necessary as in-person learning is for all our children, I definitely see all kinds of potential COVID issues coming this fall,” Adrianne added.

“Without a smart plan in place, I can only predict a school year that may be full of issues and adjustments,” said Pamela, referring to last year’s last-minute switch, for some ISDs, to a virtual model.

“This causes more hardship on families who work outside the home and cannot stay home with young students.”

Here’s a look at how states across the country are handling masks for the upcoming 2021/2022 school year: