In both Florida and Texas, students returning to school are asking their governors to reconsider their stances against mandating masks in schools when COVID-19 numbers are high and children under the age of 12 are still unable to access the vaccines.
In Round Rock, Texas, 11-year-old Ozair Mohiuddin wants to be excited about going to his new middle school for the first time next week. Instead, he's worried for his safety and that of his younger brother, Omair, 8.
Ozair suffers from acute asthma, so he and his parents are worried about the rising number of COVID infections, especially those in children, in their area. Though he has a doctor's written recommendation to receive the COVID-19 vaccination early, local vaccine distribution centers have turned him away because of his age.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order banning school districts and other government entities from mandating masks. Though school districts in Texas's major cities, including neighboring Austin, have defied the order and mandated masks when their schools reopen later this month, Round Rock Independent School District has not.
When they realized numbers were getting worse due to the delta variant and masks would not be required at school, the Mohiuddins worried whether sending Ozair and Omair to school safely would be a possibility.
"When all the adults weren't vaccinated, they would never hang out with each other without a mask," Ozair told TODAY Parents. "Why are we changing that now, when kids under 12 still can't get the vaccine? They're making us do things adults would never have done before they had the vaccine."
Ozair asked his mother for help creating a petition directed to Gov. Abbott asking him to change his stance on mask mandates given the current situation in Texas. The petition currently has 986 signatures, including that of Round Rock ISD school board member Jun Xiao.
"With the mandates placed on school, I no longer have the option to safely be in school around kids and adults who are non-vaccinated," Ozair wrote in the petition. "I can no longer take electives that I was truly looking forward to, as all elective are not available virtually. I can no longer laugh with other kids, like my friends who would attend in person."
To Gov. Abbott, Ozair wrote, "I implore you, on behalf of all kids who want to safely return to in-person learning, please don't deny us the same school experience that every kid deserves. Please reconsider your mask mandate for kids 12 and under in school. You have the power to change ... This is not a political issue for me, its a health (mental and physical) and safety issue."
"This is not politics to me," said Ozair's mother, Khona Mohiuddin. "I'm just listening to the guidance of specialists appointed by our local educational leaders. Listen to them, and don't play with our kids' lives. One kid means a lot to us. We don't want our kids to be a statistic."
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In Florida, where most students returned to school this week, many school districts have tried to work around Gov. Ron DeSantis's ban on mask mandates by requiring faculty, staff, and visitors to wear masks inside buildings — and students as well, unless their parents send in written notes opting them out of masks.
The federal government sent hundreds of ventilators and other medical equipment to Florida this week to alleviate the strain caused by record numbers of COVID hospitalizations.
In Duval County, Florida, 12-year-old Lila Hartley wrote to her school board to request they consider mandating masks, because even though she is old enough to be vaccinated, her 10-year-old brother Will is not.
"Me and my brother are siblings, so we have our fights, but I love him and I'd hate for him and any other child who can't get vaccinated to get sick or die,” she told NBC News. “You've been seeing a lot of kids who can't get vaccinated or who are unvaccinated and have been, like, really vulnerable end up in hospitals or dying, and it’s terrible.”
Lila said she wrote the letter because she wanted “school officials to see that parents aren't the only ones who are concerned, and that kids also want to be safe and keep everyone safe and keep our masks on.”
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Ozair's parents recently had to decide whether or not he will go back to school in person or do another year of school online. When they proposed another virtual year, Ozair had to hold back tears.
"I just want to go to school," he said. "It's very difficult to communicate with my teachers in virtual school, and I want to be with my friends."
Ozair's little brother, Omair, agreed.
"Nothing has changed. Last year, we wore masks. It might even be worse now that delta is here," Omair said. "It's just a mask. If Governor Abbott was us and he wasn't vaccinated, would he want to wear a mask?"