COVID-19 is already bedeviling schools in Florida as Governor Ron DeSantis fights to block mask mandates, with the state’s education board expected to meet Tuesday to discuss whether to punish districts that defy the rule.
In Palm Beach and Hillsborough Counties, which both started school on Aug. 10, nearly 10,000 of about 380,000 students already are under stay-home directives related to COVID. School officials there have been following state guidelines and allowing parents to opt out of mask requirements for their children.
“The situation is certainly concerning, and the district is working with the local health department to streamline processes and protect children as best we can,” said Claudia Shea, spokesperson for Palm Beach County’s school district.
But as COVID-19 cases surge again across Florida, the two school boards are among several planning meetings of their own in the coming days to potentially revise their policies. Districts in Broward and Alachua are already defying the governor, and the state’s largest school system, Miami-Dade County, may be next.
Broward and Alachua are requiring doctor’s notes to opt out of mask mandates, and the state education board is expected to decide if they should be punished. Miami-Dade County, the nation’s fourth-largest school system, plans to meet Wednesday to decide whether to require its 334,000 students to wear masks when classes begin next week.
The highly-contagious Delta variant has turned Florida into the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic in the U.S., with more pressure on the state’s hospitals than ever before. Even so, DeSantis, a rising star in the Republican Party, has dug in his heels in opposition to mandates, telling schools that they must allow parents a chance to opt out of any campus mask rule at their discretion.
The governor is championing parents’ “freedom to choose whether their children wear masks to school or not,” DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said. But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks are most effective when everybody wears them.
In Palm Beach County, there have been 500 cases among students and employees since school began, including a single-day high of 242 on Monday. Hillsborough has had 1,080 cases, and many others have been exposed.
Florida has floated the possibility of tailoring the punishment for districts to hurt superintendents and school board members instead of students, but it acknowledges that it can’t decide whom in the district suffers the consequences. President Joe Biden’s administration has offered to back districts financially if they’re penalized by DeSantis.
“The only way the state could tailor the financial penalties to hold accountable the few officials who made the decision to break the law, would be to withhold state funding in the exact amount of those officials’ salaries,” Pushaw said in an email Tuesday.
Miami-Dade’s district superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, came out of a meeting with medical experts on Monday supporting a mask mandate to protect against the Covid surge.
“I am accepting 100% of their recommendations specific to the protocols, inclusive of mandatory masking,” he told reporters.
For two hours, six medical experts said masks are critical to slowing the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19, which is sickening record numbers of children in Florida.
“It’s a surge like none other,” said Beny Rub, a pediatrician in northern Miami-Dade County.
Masks are the simplest, safest way to slow the spread among schoolchildren, said Lisa Gwynn, president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We do not recommend any type of opt-out,” she said at the meeting. “There is no indication that children should not be wearing masks. They are not harmful in any way.”
So far, about 10,000 Palm Beach County students’ parents have opted out of the mask mandate, or 6%, according to Shea. In Hillsborough, it’s about 28,500, or 14%, according to media outreach manager Erin Maloney.
Those numbers are relatively small. There’s no cutoff for opt-outs, but Maloney said the pace had slowed significantly since the first day of school.
“The governor has made it clear that school districts that go against that order could face financial consequences, so we’re following that order,” she said.
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