Classes Set To Resume As Mask Debate Continues, COVID-19 Cases And Hospitalizations Intensify
As COVID-19 rages through the Sunshine State, four Florida school districts will require students to wear masks when school starts this month, despite a gubernatorial threat to cut funding to districts with mask policies.
In Duval, Alachua, Leon and Broward counties, school boards and superintendents announced plans to require masks for students when classes begin.
A week ago, the governor issued an executive order effectively banning schools from mandating masks for school kids. The governor said he wanted them to “breathe free.” He threatened to defund districts that require students to wear masks.
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On Friday, after an emergency meeting, the state Board of Education decided students going to public schools with a mask requirement can apply to use state vouchers to transfer to private schools. These vouchers have previously been limited to students experiencing bullying, harassment, or a violent act.
The Florida Department of Education said mandatory mask policies for students qualify as "COVID-19 harassment." A draft of the approved policy said, "unnecessarily isolating, quarantining, or subjecting children to physical COVID-19 constraints in schools poses a threat to developmental upbringing."
Separately, the Florida Department of Health issued guidance for schools and masks. The agency said students “may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt-out the student from wearing a face covering or mask.”
Elizabeth Andersen, chairwoman of the Duval County Public School Board, said the policy they approved earlier in the week falls short of a mask mandate.
"We are recommending that students wear masks. But in alignment with the governor's executive order, we have provided that opt-out option for families and students," she said.
Alachua County public school students will have to wear masks when they return next week. The district's mask requirement will last at least two weeks. Students can opt out with a doctor's permission and signature for why a student should not wear a mask.
"We're hoping that we can get through the surge and then start to be able to go back to our life — but we take it very seriously. We take human life very seriously," said Carlee Simon, superintendent of the Alachua County Public School School District.
Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, said school boards are lying to parents.
"They're making parents believe that their children will never get COVID if there's a mask mandate," Fine said.
Simon rejected that claim.
"I think what we are using is the language that we have seen out of the Center for Disease Control and the recommendations that are coming out of the CDC," she said. "I don't believe that we're making any form of a guarantee that having a mask somehow prevents you from getting COVID."
Alachua schools also are offering incentives to teachers and staff to get vaccinated. Teachers who are fully vaccinated but contract COVID-19 will be allowed to take leave. Both districts have plans to have vaccination clinics on some school campuses offering shots to staff and eligible students.
Fine agreed about the necessary focus on vaccines.
"We need to focus on getting those people vaccinated, not feel-good virtue signaling like mask mandates that will not protect children," he said.
The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and Children's Hospital Association have all recommended that students and staff wear masks in schools.
The health department's OK of school mask requirements with opt-out provisions comes as hospitalizations because of COVID-19 in Florida continue hitting daily highs. And more children are hospitalized with the virus in Florida than any other state.
Most of those who are in hospitals are unvaccinated. Vaccines are not available for children younger than 12.
"It is dramatically different from what we experienced in the last COVID [surge], the last variant, which really was focused on and affecting older individuals over 65," said Florida Hospital Association CEO Mary Mayhew. "We are seeing 20 year olds, 25 year olds in the hospital, in ICU, on ventilators. And these are healthy 25 year olds, 30 year olds who are being hospitalized for COVID."