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Navigating Mask Policies Across South Florida As Back-To-School Season Begins

Masks for Kids going to School
StockPlanets/E+ via Getty Images
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Sun Sentinel
Parents need to make sure their kids' masks fit snugly and cover their mouths and noses.

South Florida families and teachers are gearing up for a third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. During Friday's program we heard from school board members, student journalists and teachers.

The new COVID-19 school year is starting as the delta variant of the virus is spiking drastically among people who are unvaccinated — that also comes with a variety of different mask policies for students, depending on where you live in the region.

Students started a new year of class in Monroe and Palm Beach counties this week.

The Broward Teachers Union also told CBS4 that three Broward County Public School teachers and a fourth person close to the school district died in recent days from COVID-19 complications. At least three of the four were unvaccinated against the virus.

Broward and Miami-Dade counties bring students back to campuses later this month. And the Archdiocese of Miami announced that students attending Catholic schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties will have to wear masks when they return to the classroom, unless they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

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On the South Florida Roundup, WLRN spoke with school board chairs John Dick from Monroe County and Rosalind Osgood from Broward County. Sonja Isger, education reporter for the Palm Beach Post, also joined the conversation.

Together, the panel discussed the challenges of implementing COVID-19 policy — and what that's looking like for families in the drop-off lines — as Governor Ron DeSantis tries to block mask mandates.

Also on the program, we spoke with student journalists from South Florida colleges and universities about guidance coming from higher education leaders.

School Board Members Feel The Pull Of Mask 'Opt-Out' Policies

John Dick, chair of the Monroe County School Board, described how the first day of school Thursday went in the Florida Keys.

The county did not cancel school Friday because of Tropical Depression Fred and has a mask policy in place, at least until Aug. 24, which requires students to wear masks, but provides an option for parents to sign a form to have their child opt-out.

"When you think about it over the last couple of years, you know, we were really trying to be in the business of education and teaching our children all they need to know. But we seem to be more in the school safety business, which, of course, we need to do it. We understand that. But ... you spent millions of dollars on school safety. And, you know, now we've got the last two years COVID safety protocols," he said. "It just seems [like] one thing after another. And that's unfortunate for these children. It's a tough world that they're growing up in. I really have to say, it's not the world that I grew up in."

Palm Beach County students, like Monroe, also already returned.

“Typically, elementary teachers, we like to have collaborative areas and little pods of desks, and this year I chose to just have everybody in the kind of traditional rows ... so that was different," said Robert DeGennaro, a fifth grade teacher at Hagen Road Elementary School in Boynton Beach.

Isger from the Palm Beach Post shared concerns she has heard from families in the area.

"Particularly concerns about what's happening in the cafeteria, or in some schools where parents understand that their kid might be masked up or maybe somebody else's isn't. And how do they address that? So, yeah, there's been quite a bit of concern," Isger said.

In Broward County, school board Chair Rosalind Osgood commented on the district losing several teachers in the past few days, who died from COVID-19 complications.

"Our community is saddened," she said. "Many of our community members are also losing loved ones, their children, their grandchildren. We are in a state of emergency with this pandemic. It's a deadly pandemic and people are dying, are suffering lifelong complications. So it's very important for us that people are vaccinated."

Broward County's mask mandate does not currently have an opt-out option for parents.

"Unless they have a doctor's notice or they have an [Individual Education Plan], or 504 plan, that give us some type of other provisions to provide accommodations for them to be in learning environments without a mask," Osgood said.

Broward's mandate bucks the direction Gov. Ron DeSantis has instructed schools to follow.

Students in Miami-Dade County return to campuses Monday, Aug. 23.

Up until recently, the district had planned for masks to be optional this school year, but the district started to reconsider as the delta surge began. More details will be announced next week, as the school board plans to meet to discuss its policy.

Students Report On COVID-19 Guidance Coming From Their Colleges

The start of the fall semester for South Florida colleges and universities is on the horizon. For many of them, classes resume in the next two weeks.

What will campus life be like while the region continues to grapple with the latest wave of COVID infections?

As masks, vaccines and quarantining continue to be part of the college experience two student journalists — from Broward College and Miami Dade College — discussed their schools’ COVID responses and what lies ahead this academic year in higher ed in South Florida.

Jessica Kladerman, editor of The Observer student newspaper at Broward College, said that Broward College is following CDC guidelines, and it's not clear how student activities and student life will resume just yet.

"Up until about a week ago, we were planning on integrating on-campus events back into the fold. Now, with this update, with the delta [variant] and everything, it seems like we're taking a more careful approach," said Kladerman. "At the college, what I'm understanding is, unless you're in a classroom environment, they've been kind of discouraging groups of more than 10 people gathering at a time."

Ammy Sanchez, editor of The Reporter newspaper at Miami-Dade College, said students continue to ask questions about keeping up with policy changes. She recently spoke with leaders in the Student Government Association.

"Students are mostly confused about what's going to happen in the fall term because the college has been sending mixed signals in their opinion that, in the past two months, we have been seeing more things that lead toward the full reopening of the college. But then students are confused because now they're stepping back from that," said Sanchez. "So although they're excited for the possibility of going back on campus — because many don't know and have never been to campus — they also are worried because they have seen many people around campus not wearing masks and they know that the vaccines are not mandated."

Caitie Switalski Muñoz covers news and stories concerning quality of life in Broward County and its municipalities for WLRN News. Her award-winning coverage focuses on: affordable housing, city and county governments, homelessness issues, transportation and slice of life here in South Florida.