Having been humiliated by the Taliban, Biden decides to fight with DeSantis over masks in schools instead

Not a great look for the commander-in-chief to be less diplomatic with Republican governors at the moment than he is with jihadi savages.

Then again, he hasn’t been totally outmaneuvered by DeSantis yet the way he has by the Taliban.

It’s clear why he wants to have this fight, even beyond its usefulness in distracting from that other thing that’s going on in Afghanistan right now.

This terrain is much more favorable for Biden than the Kabul airport is for surrounded Marines:

Americans are concerned about Delta and what it might do to kids. If you read only populist media, you’d come away thinking that support for mask mandates and vaccine mandates is at best a 50/50 proposition national or on balance anti-mandate, but that just ain’t so. Most adults worry about COVID and are willing to tolerate precautions to limit their family’s risk of getting infected. Not only did 69 percent support mandatory masking in schools in the poll above, with nearly half of Republicans in favor, but 55 percent of adults in the same poll said they support employer vaccine mandates. A separate poll from Gallup today found that 52 percent of workers would endorse employer vaccine mandates at their own place of business. That share has risen from 46 percent in May and will likely keep rising as jitters over Delta deepen.

Even in Texas, people support mask mandates for schools by a wide margin:

So sure, Biden’s happy to squabble with DeSantis and Greg Abbott over their bans on mandates and make broad rhetorical gestures towards stopping them somehow. But can he? He says in the clip above that teachers whose salaries are cut for defying a state mandate ban can be paid out of COVID funds. That’s super, but DeSantis already gave up on punishing defiant local school bureaucrats by slashing their pay. He doesn’t have that authority under state law. What he can do is remove an official altogether for violating the law. Which his own state education officials are threatening to do:

With the threat of losing state funds watered down, the state Board of Education, led by Grady, outlined a host of possible penalties schools could face for mandating masks but held off issuing any sanctions. The state, Grady said, could ultimately remove school officers or submit a report to the state Legislature to push lawmakers to take action against local school boards…

Other state board members raised concerns that local education officials could decide to disregard rules they simply don’t want to follow.

“What’s the point of the Legislature, what’s the point of the executive branch?” said board member Ben Gibson. “We have school boards sort of doing whatever they want.”

Whether a local official can lawfully be removed for ordering masking over DeSantis’s objections will need to be litigated. In the short-term, though, the threat of sanctions isn’t scaring other school superintendents away from requiring masks. Today the head of schools in Miami-Dade County said he supports a mask mandate so long as there’s an opt-out for students with a medical reason. As for consequences from the governor, he said he’ll accept them as a “badge of honor.” That’s his way of recognizing that the politics are on his side here. The president supports his policy, the CDC and AAP support his policy, and the public supports his policy per the polling. If DeSantis wants to run the political risk of making a martyr of him, it’s his choice.

And if he does make that choice, Biden’s administration may try to bigfoot him by using federal law:

Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, students are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education, known as FAPE, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race, color and national origin.

The department could initiate its own investigations into districts, if state policies and actions rise to potential violation of students’ civil rights. It could also review complaints from parents and advocates who make the case that prohibiting masks mandates is, in effect, a civil rights violation because it could deny a student their right to an education by putting them in harm’s way in school. Such investigations could result in resolution agreements, as many investigations by the office often do, and in the most extreme cases result in revocation of federal funding.

From the start this has been a struggle over which level of government is the appropriate one to set policy over schools. DeSantis says that parents are the appropriate authority and he’s willing to use his own state authority to empower them. Scientists say that logic doesn’t work in the case of an infectious disease, where one kid’s decision not to mask affects another kid’s degree of risk, and argue that local school boards are the appropriate authority to set a uniform standard. Some conservatives like Bill Cassidy agree that the local level is the proper decisionmaker knowing that (a) parents can always vindicate their individual rights by suing and (b) a school board that imposes a rule unsupported by parents can and should be ousted in the next election. Now here comes Biden attempting to use his federal authority to try to empower the local officials against DeSantis. Who wins?

Eventually a judge will tell us. I do find it interesting, though, that DeSantis has been keen lately to promote synthetic antibody treatments for people who are ill with COVID. He doesn’t need to promote that; once someone’s been diagnosed, a doctor will recommend it. That he would make a point of doing so anyway makes me wonder if he’s worried about being seen as callous by swing voters for fighting so hard against something as popular as mask mandates and is eager to remind them that he’s looking out for his residents’ welfare with his policies.

There was other important COVID news at Biden’s presser today, by the way:

A few weeks ago I wrote about the insane but true phenomenon of staffers in nursing homes, of all places, refusing to be vaccinated against COVID. At the time just 59 percent had had their shots even though they’re routinely in close contact with some of the most vulnerable people in America. That couldn’t go on in the age of Delta with seniors’ immunity beginning to wane. But nursing-home administrators feared that requiring their low-wage anti-vax workers to get immunized might lead many of them to quit, creating a staffing crisis at their facilities. Biden’s new policy might prevent that: By essentially requiring all nursing homes coast to coast to mandate vaccinations, there’s no way for an anti-vax staffer to leave a job where the shots are required for one where they aren’t. They’ll have to leave the industry entirely, something most will be reluctant to do given their training. The collective action problem among nursing homes in mandating vaccines is solved.

And there’s little doubt Americans will back Biden on it. If they’re mildly in favor of employer vaccine mandates in the abstract, they’ll certainly support one targeted at protecting frail elderly people.

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