ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Just over half of Florida’s 2.8 million public school students now face mandates to wear masks in classrooms as a courtroom battle continues over efforts by Gov. Ron DeSantis to leave such decisions up to parents.
A majority of school board members in Orange County told the superintendent on Tuesday to require most students to wear masks, and agreed with her recommendation to keep the mandate through Oct. 30.
The district began its school year this month with a parental opt-out, but a surge in students across the Orlando area testing positive for COVID-19 has disrupted classes. Through Tuesday, the district reported 1,968 positive cases among students since school began, with 1,491 people under active quarantine, according to the district's dashboard.
At least 10 school boards making up some of the largest districts in Florida are now defying the DeSantis administration’s attempt to ban local mandates on masks in schools. The Orange County board also said they want to challenge the legality of a Florida Department of Health rule enforcing the ban.
In Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, the Broward County School Board told the Department of Education that it won't back down on its mask policy, which gives parents a medical opt-out for students. The board said it believes that complies with the governor's order and the department's mask rule.
Parents, the board said, don't have an unlimited right to send their kids to school unmasked, infringing on the rights of other parents who want their children to be safe.
DeSantis is not backing down. During a press conference in The Villages on Wednesday, the governor warned there would be additional consequences for schools districts, but did not elaborate. DeSantis contends the defiant school boards are violating the Parents Bill of Rights, signed into law this summer, that gives parents authority to direct their children's education.
“Those schools districts are violating state law and they are overriding what the parents’ judgment is on this,” he said, stressing repeatedly that cloth masks don’t prevent the spread of aerosols.
“If these entities are going to violate state law and take away parent’s rights …. there’s consequences for that. There will continue to be more and I think we’ll see that,” DeSantis added.
The state had given Broward and Alachua counties until Tuesday to end their mask mandates. Broward’s students began school a week ago with a mask policy in place. State officials have threatened to withhold funding equal to school board salaries if a district doesn’t comply. Those funds make up less than 1% of each district’s budget.
“You have to follow the rule of law. You have to do what is right. And if you’re are not going to do what’s right, we will withhold your salaries,” said Richard Corcoran, the state’s education commissioner.
The debate over masks has gotten heated across the state.
On Wednesday morning, police said the father of a student who tried to enter Fort Lauderdale High School without a mask was arrested after he forcefully pushed another student who tried to grab his cellphone. A police report said the father was videoing students at the school’s front gate and the student didn’t want to be filmed.
The father was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse.
School board members from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties held a virtual news conference Wednesday to discuss the possibility of suing DeSantis and the state. All three said they’ve received online threats over the mask issue.
“We will not be pressured by the governor or the state Board of Education when the safety and health of our students is involved. We have a constitutional duty to protect our students,” said Miami-Dade school board member Lucia Baez-Geller. “Governor DeSantis has made this issue divisive with his rhetoric and threats.”
Monroe County's board decided Tuesday to require masks rather than strongly encourage them, but with a parental opt-out that should comply with the DeSantis order.
In Tallahassee on Wednesday, testimony ended in a three-day hearing that pits pro-mask parents against the DeSantis administration and state education officials. Circuit Judge John C. Cooper said he would hear closing arguments Thursday and rule Friday.
The state contends that parents, not schools, should choose whether their children cover up in classrooms.
“I take my rights and my freedom very seriously,” testified Jennifer Gillen, who supports the governor's order and has two sons in Lee County schools where there is no strict mask mandate. “Our rights are actually being threatened.”
Dr. Jay Battacharya, a Stanford University medical professor and researcher who also supports the governor's approach, said he typically masks up only when required to, or to make others feel at ease — not because he believes they prevent coronavirus exposure. “I don’t believe there is high-quality evidence to show masks are effective in stopping disease spread,” he testified Wednesday.
Asked what an acceptable death rate for children would be to justify continuing a strict mask ban, Battacharya said it’s an incorrect way of measuring the outcome. “I don’t think it’s right to say what are acceptable deaths. Compared to what? It’s a question of tradeoffs,” he said.
The highly contagious delta variant led to an acceleration in cases around Florida and record high hospitalizations just as schools prepared to reopen classrooms this month. By mid-August more than 21,000 new cases were being added per day, compared with about 8,500 a month earlier. However, new cases and hospitalizations have leveled off over the past week. There were 16,820 people being treated for the disease in Florida hospitals Tuesday, U.S. Health Department figures showed, down from a record high above 17,000 last week.
About 6 in 10 Americans say students and teachers should be required to wear face masks while in school, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Kelli Kennedy in Fort Lauderdale contributed to this story.