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AP photo by Brynn Anderson / Students walk down the hallway at Tussahaw Elementary school in McDonough, Georgia, last week. Schools have begun reopening in the U.S. with most states leaving it up to local schools systems to decide whether to require masks.

Our kids are in the COVID crosshairs. In July, 38,654 pediatric COVID-19 cases were reported. Just a week later, that number increased 85%. When today's youth look back on this COVID era, I wonder what they'll say. They might say that the delta variant might have been deterred if vaccinations had been embraced immediately. They may ask why it took so long to authorize a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12.

With schools starting and the delta variant spreading, the political debates have gone viral. Our kids hear one pediatrician's warning, "This is not your grandfather's COVID." Then they hear politicians waging war against the recommendations for universal masking in schools by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Tennessee's political debate grows fiercer by the day, especially with recent news of the negative impact of remote learning. Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton threatened legislative action if schools mandated masks or closed. State Rep. Robin Smith agreed, labeling mandates as fear mongering.

So now we're approaching an era of "legislative action," a nice term for war between state and local leadership. Check out Florida, the battle's poster child. Given the state's surge in cases, school boards are requesting the autonomy to make the decisions for their schools that best fit local data. But Gov. Ron DeSantis considers masks as "harassment." Should a school board vote for mask mandates, he proposes removing state funding unless exemptions are allowed. Motivated by reports of 17,000 new cases per day, several school districts are defying the governor by issuing mask mandates. DeSantis, in a counter move, issued an executive order to Florida's Board of Education to pass a rule allowing parents to skirt mask mandates by school districts.

How can our students not be confused by what's happening? And maybe they're a bit embarrassed by the childish behavior of adults. A North Carolina school board meeting passed a mask mandate for all unvaccinated staff and students inside the school building. But the meeting turned ugly when unruly parents and protesters showed up, including GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn. In a nonsensical game of name-calling, he claimed board members were even more corrupt than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her ruling about masks "totalitarian, hypocritical, and arbitrary." How does that help?

"Parental rights" is the new buzz word and was used in a Louisiana school board meeting where parents demanded an explanation for a mask mandate. The superintendent explained that school-aged children had tested at a 4% positivity rate for COVID, but are now testing at a 28% positivity rate for the delta variant. I suspect that students can do the math.

Anxiety about possible school closings are growing. Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly has already closed recreational centers to protect our children.

Many businesses understand the closure issue. They're encouraging customers to wear masks, but they're mandating masks for their workers. Amazon is requiring its 900,000 warehouse workers to wear masks indoors. Target, Starbucks, McDonald's and Home Depot are requiring workers to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status or the transmission risks of the area.

"Parental rights" could cost lives, close schools and endanger the economy. The upcoming generation deserves better.

Let's mask ourselves up and mask our schools. Then, let's help our youngest voters mobilize and get out their votes.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.

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