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Biden administration cautions that rolling back mask restrictions are premature

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

I'll be flying back home to California soon. California's a Democratic-led state that has pretty strict COVID rules but now plans to ease some of those measures. And several other blue states are doing the same thing - easing masking policies, including in schools. But the federal government is urging caution. Here's White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.

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JEN PSAKI: What our responsibility to do is to abide by what the president committed to on the campaign, which is to listen to scientists, listen to data. That doesn't move at the speed of politics. It moves at the speed of data.

MARTINEZ: We're going to take the next few minutes to dig in - first to the politics with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and then to what this all means for schoolkids with NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz. Good morning to both of you. Mara, you're going to lead us off here because Democrats have been steadfast about public health measures to control the pandemic, but we're seeing Democratic governors more each day moving out ahead of the CDC. What is happening here?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: What's happening is the virus is declining, at least as measured by the number of hospitalizations and deaths. And even cases, although they're still high, are also coming down. So you see one after another, all these governors - New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, California, New York, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington state - they're all easing some of their requirements. That means they're going to leave the question about mandates up to local officials. And they're hearing from their voters. In these states, the voters are mostly vaccinated. The voters say COVID's here to stay, and they want to get back to normal life, which, by the way, was one of the most important promises Biden made on the campaign trail - this return to normalcy.

And this is different than the defiance to mask mandates from Republicans, who are against masks because of ideology or distrust of science and experts. Republicans say they're coming to this conclusion based on science and the progression of the pandemic. Meanwhile, at the White House, the press secretary said yesterday people should still follow the CDC guidance that they keep masks on indoors. But the CDC said yesterday that they're reviewing this data. So it's possible the White House will catch up to these governors pretty soon.

MARTINEZ: Now, last year, President Biden, Mara, talked about freedom from the coronavirus, only to see it surge back. So how is the White House talking about where the country is headed?

LIASSON: Well, there's really two competing imperatives for Biden. He campaigned on listening to the science. The science, in the form of the CDC, says they're not ready to move yet. He can't really throw the CDC under the bus. He doesn't want to declare too victory - declare victory too early. As you said, he tried that last year, and it failed. He doesn't want to have a premature, mission-accomplished movement - moment. But - so he's struggling to make the transition to the new normal, and the new normal would be not trying to get to COVID-zero, where you're trying to eliminate all infections, but just trying to keep hospitalizations and deaths low and get daily life back to normal if you are vaccinated.

MARTINEZ: And unfortunately, Mara, we all know this - much of what goes on with COVID response is also very political. So how do you think the two sides are positioning themselves with voters in all of this?

LIASSON: Well, Republicans are hoping that voters will be mad at Democrats for having the mandates in the first place and keeping them on as long as they did. Democrats are hoping that voters will reward them for taking science into account. You know, the president shifted over the last year from trying to unify everyone, bring them along voluntarily, to placing some mandates and then blaming Republicans, who he said questioned vaccines, undermined local regulations. Democrats will argue that Republicans prolonged the pandemic by resisting vaccines and masks. So we don't know which side will prevail, but there's no doubt that this entire pandemic - masks, vaccines, et cetera - has become politicized.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now to schools with NPR's Anya Kamenetz. In Pennsylvania, the mask mandate expired recently - Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Oregon all lifting theirs in the coming weeks and months. Anya, so what are the reactions from school districts?

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Well, their lives have just gotten harder, right? So states are getting out ahead of the CDC, as Mara mentioned, so there's essentially no guidance here, even in Massachusetts, which is a state where previously they actually had a clear masking offramp. They used to say if 4 out of 5 of your staff or students are vaccinated, you can take the masks off. Well, that's now out the window. It's anything goes. And so what governors have essentially done here is they pushed this decision down to individual school districts. And we know, from seeing it unfold previously in red states, that's going to mean contentious school board meetings, protests and very different policies in neighboring districts.

MARTINEZ: So, Anya, what are you hearing from educators?

KAMENETZ: You know, we've reported throughout the year about burnout and staff shortages among educators, and feeling unsafe in your workplace probably might not help if they are - they're not in favor of taking off the masks. On the other hand, perhaps surprisingly, Randi Weingarten, the head of one of the national teachers unions, was on MSNBC this week saying she's in favor of an offramp to masking and that teachers actually don't want them anymore. Although she wants to see the masks come off tied to clear metrics, and that is not what's happening here.

MARTINEZ: What about parents and students? How are they responding?

KAMENETZ: It's so complex. You know, some parents are jumping for joy and others are terrified. The most recent national polls - these were during the height of the omicron surge - show most parents actually do support requiring masks for students, and that support notably is higher among Asian American parents. You know, if you wait a few weeks and children experience actually taking off the masks, cases are still going down, that opinion might shift.

But I do want to mention the communities that have been carrying a higher burden throughout this pandemic - the frontline workers, those with multigenerational households, those who've been experiencing more serious disease and more lives lost. They might be the exact same communities who feel endangered by this shift in this moment. So the real challenge is, how can schools and politicians build trust and confidence with more vulnerable communities that school's still going to be safe, and whether that's through, you know, tools like testing, better ventilation or vaccination campaigns or all of the above?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Anya Kamenetz and Mara Liasson. Thanks, you two.

KAMENETZ: Thanks.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.