BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana's unenviable place as the epicenter of the nation's latest coronavirus spike has replaced the excitement and hopefulness of a new school year with dread and anger.
Parents, teachers, students and education leaders are arguing over coronavirus testing rules, worrying about infection possibilities and lashing out about mask and vaccine mandates.
College faculty and administrators are bickering over whether to require coronavirus vaccines for a return to campus or to be allowed to teach online instead. Parents and teachers disagree about whether masks should be required at K-12 schools, especially for younger children.
Louisiana's classrooms are seeing the same clashes — political and personal — that are consuming the country in the pandemic. And they’re only intensifying as Louisiana's COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations continue to climb because of the delta variant and the state's low coronavirus vaccination rate.
On the political front, Attorney General Jeff Landry and some other Republican officials are actively trying to undermine Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' mask mandate.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education declined to enact statewide COVID-19 requirements, with board President Sandy Holloway saying in July that those decisions were best left to local school systems.
Edwards intervened three weeks later, enacting an indoor statewide mask mandate for anyone in kindergarten and older — whether vaccinated or not — that applies to school campuses.
The mask mandate won support from health care leaders around Louisiana who said they're seeing alarming increases in the number and severity of COVID-19 cases among children. But it sparked controversy in some local school districts, with angry parents in St. Tammany and Livingston parishes among those loudly objecting to the face covering requirement.
Landry sent an email to his employees with two sample letters for parents to seek a philosophical or religious exemption from the mask mandate at schools — or from a vaccine mandate if one was enacted. He has since posted the documents on his office Facebook page, where it's been reposted and shared by Republican lawmakers and thousands of others.
“Louisiana is not governed by a dictatorship. The question is: ‘who gets to determine the healthcare choices for you and your child?’ In a free society, the answer is the citizen — not the state,” Landry wrote on Facebook.
Edwards responded to the attorney general's efforts with a letter to state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, saying Landry is creating confusion and repeating that students must wear masks indoors unless they meet a specific set of exemptions.
“By adopting these measures — and ignoring those that are unwilling to acknowledge the current crisis — we can keep our kids in school this year and keep them safe," the governor wrote.
Arguments on college campuses center on vaccine requirements.
A half-dozen private institutions, including Dillard, Tulane and Xavier universities, have sought and received approval from the Louisiana Department of Health to require immunizations against COVID-19 for a return to campus. State law allows schools to seek special authorization to mandate a vaccine that isn't on the state-required list of inoculations.
But no public university in Louisiana has immediately sought that approval — a request that could be fraught with political consequences for a taxpayer-financed institution in a conservative state. Landry has indicated he will support litigation challenging vaccine mandates on public college campuses.
The Louisiana State University, University of Louisiana and Southern University systems have instead requested to be able to mandate the coronavirus vaccine on its campuses when one receives full FDA approval, which isn't expected to happen before the start of classes.
LSU, in particular, has received vocal pushback from faculty, especially after administration attorneys initially said requiring the coronavirus vaccine now would violate state law — a position quickly contradicted by the state health department as inaccurate.
The university's chief lawyer, Winston DeCuir, later adjusted the explanation, saying LSU had to worry about federal constitutional protections against government intrusion into individual freedoms.
LSU President William Tate encouraged faculty, staff and students to get vaccinated, even though no mandate is in effect. But hundreds of faculty — who have started petitions and posted objections online — say that's not enough. They want the ability to avoid in-person teaching until the shots are mandated.
“It is unconscionable that you would ask faculty, staff and students for a full return to campus under these conditions,” professors wrote to Tate.
Louisiana's school year is getting off to a rocky start.