Which way will DeSantis go on mandating vaccines for public-school teachers?

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

I’m not picking on him by asking that question. He’s the second-most important Republican in the country right now and he’s made sensible state management of COVID his signature issue. On a day when blue cities, states, and agencies are telling public servants to get vaxxed or get lost, it’s natural to wonder how the GOP’s rising star might approach the same question.

The politics are more complicated than they might seem.

Start with what DeSantis said two weeks ago about schools. In keeping with his brand, he’s anti-mandate — for students, at least:

Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters Tuesday morning he expects a “normal school year” and promised no penalties for violators if a district should enact a mandate.

“No mandates for anything,” DeSantis said. “I think it’s very unfair for some of the youngest kids who are the least susceptible, least likely to spread it, that they have the mitigation imposed on them more severely than a lot of adults do.”

“No mandates for anything” is a concise summary of his approach to the pandemic circa summer 2021. It wasn’t the DeSantis approach to the pandemic in spring 2020, as Kristi Noem would happily remind you, and DeSantis knows he’ll be attacked for that in a 2024 primary. Any top-down regulations he issues to slow the spread of COVID at this late stage especially will be held against him by the base.

So he’s trying to find an accommodation between swing voters and MAGA. He’ll endorse vaccination, which pleases the former, but he’ll stridently oppose vaccine passports, including for cruise lines, to signal his sympathy for anti-vaxxers among the latter. He resisted state-ordered lockdowns last year after the initial spring surge, endearing himself to righties, but also allowed local officials to crack down, easing the concerns of less conservative supporters who were worried about the spread of the virus.

Viewed that way, we can guess how he’ll handle questions about requiring public-school teachers to get vaccinated. I strongly endorse them getting the shot, DeSantis will say, but I refuse to order it. No mandates for anything.

I think that’s the way he’ll end up going, another example of him triangulating between anti-vax populists and everyone else.

But.

Although the righties whose votes he’s coveting in 2024 are both strongly anti-mandate and … “vaccine-ambivalent,” let’s call them, there’s at least an argument that requiring vaccination in these narrow circumstances is a better play for him. Start with the polling from June, before Delta erupted in the U.S., that I mentioned this morning. Seventy percent of parents with school-aged children, including 56 percent of Republicans, thought vaccination should be mandatory for public-school teachers. And why wouldn’t they? There’s only one group across the entire U.S. population that’s still ineligible to be immunized right now, children under 12. The risk to kids from infection was exceptionally low with previous variants of the virus but we don’t know if that’s still true with Delta. It stands to reason that they face some increased risk given that unvaccinated adults are producing one thousand times more virus now than they did when they were infected last year.

And so it’s a matter of basic care. By what right should employees of the public-school system risk exposing your children in their custody to infection when that risk can be all but eliminated with a free, widely available shot? Because kids can’t be vaxxed and the adults with whom they’re spending most of their waking hours can be, we should require those adults to do everything they can to shield kids from the virus. DeSantis could and would frame a mandate in those exact terms: “My first job as governor is to protect the people of this state, starting with Florida’s children. Because the vaccines haven’t been approved for kids yet, they can’t protect themselves. We have no choice but to make our public-school teachers take every precaution on their behalf.”

There’d be other benefits. With adults in schools fully immunized, it’d be easier to ignore CDC advice to have all students mask up this fall. (Although that would depend on how much infected kids pass along Delta to each other.) And in case there’s a nasty fall surge of the virus and teachers start complaining that the state should switch to remote learning out of an abundance of caution, having them all vaccinated by the time school begins would head off that argument before it gathers any steam. There’s no need to go remote when all of the grown-ups in the school building — the most infectious group — have been immunized already.

And of course, having all public-school teachers in Florida immunized will also help reduce transmission in the communities where they live and work. Every extra vaccination helps.

The key point politically here for DeSantis is that public-school teachers and especially their union henchmen are a progressive special interest to which the populist righty base is naturally hostile. (Probably not a lot of DeSantis voters among them either.) And if post-Trump Republican politics means anything, it means “fighting” with the base’s enemies. DeSantis already did that once with Florida’s public-school teachers when he battled them in court to force public schools to reopen last year, with wild success. If he fought them over vaccine mandates it’d be easy enough for him to frame the dispute as a case of him once again standing up for the right of kids to be in class and to be as safe as possible while the selfish unions and their members clamor for their right to infect students by avoiding mandates.

The head of the Florida Educational Association complained when DeSantis said “no mandates for anything” a few weeks ago, demanding that local school boards, teachers, and staff have the power to decide whether kids should mask or not. DeSantis could turn that around on him. If it’s mandates they want, he’s happy to oblige them: Go out and get vaccinated or don’t teach this fall. How’s that?

It might not be MAGAs’ favorite DeSantis policy but they’d enjoy seeing liberal union tears flow.

The complication if he were to do that would be mandate advocates demanding that he extend his logic to other vulnerable groups. If the potential vulnerability of children is enough to justify a mandate for teachers, why shouldn’t the state do everything in its power to require vaccination by all health-care and nursing-home workers? That’d be a much more ambitious mandate, and suddenly DeSantis would be taking shots from the likes of Noem again for being a big-government Republican or whatever if he agreed to it. Maybe there’s a compromise available to him, one suggested earlier today by his nemesis, Andrew Cuomo, ironically. Instead of the governor ordering or not ordering mandates, he could simply defer to local governments on issuing rules the same way he did last year with respect to restrictions on businesses. That would mean fewer teachers being forced to vaccinate since red counties would be more reluctant than blue ones to take advantage of their mandate authority, but it’d be something.