Talk of mask mandate for Louisiana schools causing friction

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Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley speaks to the House Education Committee about regulations governing the reopening of K-12 schools amid the coronavirus pandemic, Monday, July 13, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana’s top school board will decide Tuesday whether to issue a face covering requirement for teachers and most students as schools reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, a mask mandate pushed by the education superintendent and opposed by the state attorney general.

Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told lawmakers Monday he’s proposing that all adults and students in grades 3 through 12 must wear some sort of mask while at school “to the greatest extent possible and practical.”

“The closer the proximity, the more important the face covering,” Brumley told the House Education Committee.

Louisiana’s seeing a significant surge in coronavirus infections. The state again has risen into the nation’s top five in the number of per capita cases after previous success in combating the outbreak. A statewide face covering mandate ordered by Gov. John Bel Edwards took effect Monday, but isn’t certain to extend long enough to cover school reopenings.

A mask requirement is among pages of regulations the Department of Education is recommending the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopt as a minimum standard for Louisiana’s K-12 schools to reopen in-person instruction.

The board, known as BESE, meets Tuesday to set the regulations for nearly 1,700 schools. School districts are determining individually whether to have in-person classes, online learning or a mix.

Other regulations sought by the education department for in-person learning would require reconfiguring classrooms, distancing riders on school buses, establishing isolation areas for anyone showing signs of sickness, temperature checks for school entrance and cleaning protocols.

But masks are generating the most attention, amid the ongoing national culture clash over face coverings as a means of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.

BESE President Sandy Holloway would not commit Monday to what the education board may decide.

“We’re going to have some deep discussions about the masks. I know it’s one area of concern,” Holloway said.

Attorney General Jeff Landry sent the board and Brumley a letter, offering suggestions about the reopening of schools. Among the items, Landry told the board that “onerous safety procedures, such as masks,” should not be required.

“We believe that mandating students to wear masks creates a situation that may cross the line on liberty, and may also become a tremendous distraction with enforcement,” the Republican attorney general wrote. “Again, masks may be allowed, even encouraged, and certainly not discouraged, but I am concerned that our teachers and school administrators will be mask-enforcement police rather than educators.”

Landry’s office requires its employees to wear a facial covering in public areas.

Lawmakers required BESE to establish minimum standards for students, teachers and staff on school property in a new law passed in last month’s special session.

Brumley said he developed the mask requirement for schools — and the other regulations proposed to the education board — in consultation with Louisiana’s health department and children’s health experts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages the wearing of masks to help slow the virus’s spread.

Beyond masks, Holloway said she expected board discussion Tuesday on the proposed regulations for school buses. The education department’s guidance for the state’s current Phase 2 coronavirus rules would have buses limited to 50% capacity.

Meanwhile, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association said it has no plans to cancel fall sports at schools. But loosened restrictions from Edwards will be needed before high school football games can begin.

Democratic Senate Education Chairman Cleo Fields asked for the suspension of all school athletics because of safety concerns, but Republican House Education Chairman Ray Garofalo and a majority of House Republicans objected to the cancellation. Brumley and the education board said the athletic association has final determination over sports.

The state health department said Monday that 3,315 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19.

Louisiana has nearly 80,000 confirmed cases, adding anywhere from 1,300 to 2,600 new cases daily over the last week. Public health experts say the actual infection rate is expected to be much higher.

The sizable boost in cases can’t be explained solely by increased testing, because the percentage of tests coming back positive is growing — and the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized is increasing as well, reaching 1,308 people Monday.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up within weeks. But for some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press

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