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Schools Vs. The State Over Masks, And Different COVID-19 Death Data

Dorah Cerisene, 9, gets tested for COVID-19, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida schools are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, forcing teachers and students to quarantine
Marta Lavandier/AP
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AP
Dorah Cerisene, 9, gets tested for COVID-19, Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021, in North Miami, Fla. Florida schools are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, forcing teachers and students to quarantine. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

More Florida school boards vote to require masks as the state follows through with the threat to hold back funding. And, how the state changed reporting COVID-19 deaths.

More than half of Florida’s public school children have to wear a mask at school. At least 13 school boards have approved a mask requirement despite the state’s efforts to prohibit such rules, and threats of funding cuts by the state Board of Education.

From the Florida peninsula to the Panhandle, from Miami-Dade to Leon, the Gulf Coast to the First Coast, Sarasota to Duval, literally from A-to-V — Alachua to Volusia — public school boards ranging from Democrat-dominated counties to strong Republican areas have approved rules requiring a doctor’s note if a child is to go without a mask in class.

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On Thursday, a Leon County circuit court judge entered his final written decision in a court challenge finding the school mask mandates are legal. Gov. Ron DeSantis appealed the decision.

Before the judge's ruling became official, Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran started holding back money equal to the salaries of school board members and superintendents in the first two school districts that put in place mask mandates.

Broward County was the first school district to require students to wear masks. The state is holding back $35,000 a month, equal to the salaries of the district's nine school board members. But Broward may not be without the money for long.

Broward County Schools Interim Superintendent Vickie Cartwright said the federal government will allow districts to use money from the American Rescue Plan to make up the missing funds. However, school districts in Florida have yet to receive those federal dollars.

"No one in the state of Florida has received these funds yet, but we are allowed to go ahead and start allocating the funding out of the amount that we know we're supposed to be receiving and start utilizing those dollars," Cartwright said.

Through Aug. 27, the district has reported about 664 COVID-19 cases since the start of school, according to its dashboard. About two-thirds of those are students.

By comparison — Polk County, which has less than half the number of students as Broward — has reported more than 800 positive cases, and more than 8,200 quarantined students, according to the district's data. The Polk County school district does not have a mask mandate.

The proportion of infection and quarantined students in Sarasota County is much higher. About one in five students are out of their classrooms because of the virus or because they have been in close contact with a student who has been infected.

The Sarasota School Board approved its mask requirement two weeks ago. The state Board of Education has initiated an investigation asking for the district's response to the accusation its policy violates state law.

We've got less than 40,000 students. We had 1,000 of them test positive last week. That's pretty rough.
Sarasota County Public School Board Chair Shirley Brown

Sarasota School Board Chair Shirley Brown does not think the district is breaking state law.

"I think we did demonstrate a compelling state interest when we showed the numbers. We've got less than 40,000 students. We had 1,000 of them test positive last week," she said. "That's pretty rough."

When the Sarasota school board voted 3-2 for the mask requirement, it was characterized by some news reports as the first conservative county in Florida to vote for masks. Before she was elected to the Sarasota school board, Brown served in the Florida House as a Democrat.

"The issues that we're looking at aren't Democrat and Republican. We need to vote for the best interest of our children. And I don't think COVID is a Democrat or Republican issue," she said.

Duval County Public School students will have to wear masks when they return from the Labor Day weekend. Parents and students had a few weeks to prepare after the school district approved the requirement last month.

"Even though our community seems to be improving some, I still think this is a really important move to make sure that we are covering all our bases and our schools," said Duval School Board Chair Elizabeth Andersen.

About two dozen students have sued the Duval school board, arguing their constitutional rights have been violated — including the state constitutional guarantee of a high-quality education. Some of the students suing have learning disabilities.

"We have no intention to not continue to make sure that every child's needs are met the best way, to the best of our ability," Andersen said.

Different Death Data

August was the deadliest month of the pandemic in Florida. And the state's seven-day average of deaths also has hit a new pandemic-high — 247 people dying from the virus in Florida each day over the past seven days, according to University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.

"Despite the obvious benefits of COVID-19 vaccines, the fact that we've had these record numbers of cases during the delta surge and they led to the highest numbers of hospitalizations in every age group that we have seen in the pandemic thus far, it's ended up resulting in pretty considerable mortality," Salemi said.

This surge comes as the state Department of Health changed how it was reporting COVID-19 deaths. State health officials used to report coronavirus deaths when the state was notified someone died from the virus. Now they report deaths by the actual date someone died.

While that may not seem like a significant change, it can take longer for someone dying from the virus to show up in the state’s data. That delay can create what my look like an inaccurate decrease in statewide COVID deaths because of the lag in reporting the date of the death.

For example, the weekends.

"What you notice when you look at this deaths-by-date report, you see an artificial decrease during the weekends. It's not because people don't die from COVID-19 over the weekend. It's because certification and reporting move more slowly," Salemi said.

Both types of data are important, public health officials say. A deaths-by-report-date helps give a real-time picture of the mortality of the virus. A deaths-by-date of death report helps develop a longer term picture.

Salemi operates an online dashboard displaying both data.

"In the most recent two to three-week window, based on deaths-by-date that they occurred [black line in chart above], we should shade that out and at least let people know these numbers are likely to rise substantially over the coming weeks as we learn of those deaths that occurred," he said.

The change in methodology in how the Health Department reports death data isn't the first change the state has made regarding its publicly available COVID-19 data. It stopped published daily data in early June.

The state still collects the daily data, but shares it with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control instead of publishing it on what had been the state's online, daily COVID dashboard.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.