TAMPA, Fla. - As more large school districts defy Florida's ban on strict mask mandates, worries that rapidly spreading infections could force them to close classrooms are no longer theoretical: Thousands of schoolchildren are already being sent home, only days after their school year began.
Children — particularly those too young to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — are "really good" at transmitting the coronavirus, said Dr. J. Stacey Klutts, a special assistant to the national director of pathology and lab medicine for the entire Veterans Affairs system.
Klutts said the highly contagious delta variant makes it absolutely necessary to wear masks indoors and avoid large group gatherings, so if unprotected students sit for hours in classrooms every day, it could rapidly spread infection in the community at large.
"It’s terrifying. I’m afraid that we’re going to have a lot of really sick kids in addition to the spread which is going to be a lot of sick adults," Klutts said.
School boards in Hillsborough, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties voted Wednesday to join Broward and Alachua in requiring students to wear facial coverings unless they get a doctor's note. With Orange County still allowing an easy parental opt-out, four of Florida's five largest districts are now defying Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on strict mask mandates.
Students began their school year in Palm Beach County on Aug. 10 with a parental opt-out policy that allowed more than 10,000 children to attend classes without masks. The board reversed course after seeing the numbers: After just one week, 734 students and 112 employees had confirmed infections, and more than 1,700 students had been sent home, interim Superintendent Michael Burke said.
Hillsborough, which also began its school year last week, also changed its policy during an emergency meeting Wednesday after tallying 2,058 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and sending more than 10,000 students into isolation because of infection or quarantine because of exposure.
Asked about the decision of the school board in Hillsborough County, DeSantis defended his stance that parents should continue to decide for their children.
"They had allowed the parents to make the decision and have an ability to opt out and that’s how school started," DeSantis said. "They reneged on that and basically took the decision out of the parents’ hands."
Statewide, Florida reported 23,335 new COVID-19 infections for Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services dashboard reported 16,973 hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients Thursday.
DeSantis, a Republican, also is in an escalating power struggle with the Democratic White House. After President Joe Biden ordered possible legal action Wednesday, the U.S. Education Department raised the possibility of using its civil rights arm against Florida and other Republican-led states that have blocked public health measures meant to protect students.
"Some state governments have adopted policies and laws that interfere with the ability of schools and districts to keep our children safe during in-person learning," Biden's executive order said.
Issuing his own executive order last month, DeSantis said Florida must "protect parents’ right to make decisions regarding masking of their children" and tasked the state education commissioner with finding ways to make districts comply, including withholding state funds.
Earlier this year, DeSantis also signed a law barring government entities or any other institution from infringing on parental rights to "direct the upbringing, education, health care and mental health" of their children without demonstrating that such action is reasonable, necessary and narrowly tailored.
"The forced masking of schoolchildren infringes upon parents’ rights to make health and educational decisions for their own children," the governor's spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, said Wednesday. Politicians, including those on school boards, are not above the law, she added.
"I am not on the board for political partisanship," said Nadia Combs, who sponsored the mask policy in Hillsborough County. "We have to keep our schools open. That is my goal."