Before campuses across Florida have even had the chance to ring the first-day bell, school districts across our state are caught in the middle of a state fight mired in politics, power, COVID positivity rates, and prevention.
Despite the Governor’s orders not to impose mask mandates for students this year or risk losing funding, we’ve confirmed at least a half-dozen Florida school districts have or are now in the process of discussing whether or not to disregard the Governor’s orders.
The Alachua, Leon, Duval, and the Broward County school districts all made headlines this week for defying the Governor’s orders regarding students wearing masks to school this year.
“It’s our belief this should be a parent’s choice,” the Governor reiterated during multiple press conferences appearances this week.
After contacting all 67 school districts, we’ve learned the Brevard and Miami-Dade County school districts are also discussing its student mask future.
“We certainly hope to be able to craft protocols that ensure full funding of our children’s education, while simultaneously protecting their and their teachers’ health and well-being,” said Miami-Dade’s school chief.
Districts ignoring the Governor’s edict point to the ongoing sure of COVID cases, the worst since the pandemic began more than one year ago.
In Alachua County, the school board voted to mandate student masks for the first two weeks of school.
“We’re not doing this to get attention or be defiant,” said district spokesperson Jackie Johnson. “We’re doing what we feel is best for our community and keep our schools opened,” Johnson said.
According to the district, in the just past week 20 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, 70 are in quarantine and this past weekend, two Alachua County school custodians died of the virus.
“We haven’t even started school yet. It’s just moving alarmingly fast. If this trend continues, we are very concerned about our ability to keep schools open because we may not have enough staff to be able to do it,” Johnson said.
Earlier on Friday, Florida’s Board of Education held an emergency meeting where they unanimously passed a measure that would allow HOPE scholarship funds be used for students that feel pressure to wear or not wear a mask at school. The funds would allow those students to switch public schools or attend a private school where masks are not required.
In response to the Board’s decision, Alachua school’s spokesperson said they will let families know they can opt-out of the district’s two-week mandated mask policy by providing an exemption form signed by a doctor or nurse practitioner or if the student accepts a HOPE scholarship to attend another school where a mask requirement is not in place.
Of the dozens of school districts that responded to our request for mask policy positions, the majority plan to adhere to the Governor’s orders by making masks optional for students. Nearly all school districts told us they “strongly encourage” students to wear masks to school.
Orange County public schools and Seminole County public schools have issued mandated masks for school staff and visitors only while student masks remain optional.
The state teacher’s union, not surprisingly, encouraged districts to make their own decisions and questioned if the Governor even has the constitutional authority to force schools not to issue mandated masks for students, even in high surge case communities.
“if there’s a district that believes they should put a mask mandate in place, they should put the mask mandate in place,” said Andrew Spar, head of the union. “We’ll have their back,” Spar said.
Earlier this week, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who is also vying for the Governor’s seat next year, also encouraged school districts to do what they think is best for their districts.
But Governor DeSantis has made his position clear.
“It’s parents’ choice in Florida and the government can’t override the parents,” said Governor DeSantis.