TALLAHASSEE, Fla- — Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran asked school districts in a memo Wednesday to change mask mandates for the upcoming school year, instead to make them voluntary.
"With this return, we ask that districts, which currently are implementing a mandated face-covering policy, revise their policy to be voluntary for the 2021-2022 school year," the memo said in part.
After reviewing policies of districts with mandatory masks in place as well as reviewing all districts' relevant health data, on top of other factors, Corcoran stated that "the data shows us that districts’ face-covering policies do not impact the spread of the virus."
"Face coverings are a personal decision and certainly families and individuals should maintain their ability to make a decision that is unique to their circumstances. Broad sweeping mandatory face-covering policies serve no remaining good at this point in our schools," Corcoran said in the memo.
CDC guidance for K-12 schools says schools providing in-person instruction should prioritize two prevention strategies, one of those being that universal and correct use of masks should be required.
In Corcoran's memo, he acknowledged the potential impacts of mask mandates on students with disabilities and English language learners.
"Mandatory face-covering policies inhibit peer-to-peer learning in our classrooms and they may also unintentionally create a barrier for students and families who would otherwise choose in-person instruction if such a policy were not in place. Such policies may also impede instruction in certain cases, especially for students with disabilities and English language learners who benefit from viewing a teacher’s face and mouth."
Ed Spinks' son, William, is a student in Hillsborough County Schools. His son has down syndrome, and he says he supports voluntary masks. Spinks shared with ABC Action News the challenges his son has faced this year.
“The masking impairs significantly on speech therapy, but even in the day to day classroom because it makes it more difficult for him to understand the teachers and more difficult for the teachers to understand him if he has a question or needs assistance with a project," said Spinks.
Many people weighed in on the topic online as well, with some saying the decision should wait until after the summer to see where things stand with the pandemic.
“Per our own research, kind of what we see in our own interactions with kids and teens with mask-wearing, on a short-term basis so far, it hasn’t hindered everything completely, but I think from a developmental standpoint, if anything, it's sometimes hard for even adults to communicate how they feel with a mask on. So that could be a little bit of a hindrance," said Stephanie Moir, a licensed mental health counselor. "At the same time, just adapting and how we can communicate emotions with our eyes, our hands, and other forms of gesture.”
Moir is with Serene Mind Counseling and Evaluations. ABC News asked Moir about mask-wearing and if we could see kids behind in social development down the road. She explained she doesn't think it's going to have a long-term effect, but there may be balances families can find at home.
“From that developmental standpoint, I think obviously there’s still room to grow and to show them these are what emotions look like or this is a way we communicate as people without wearing masks," said Moir.
Read the full memo below: