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 parents don’t have an unlimited right to send their kids to school without a mask, adding that it would infringe on the rights of other parents who want their children to be safe.
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.
"We believe that the district is in compliance. We don’t believe that we have done anything inappropriate as it relates to the executive order and the rule of the Department of Education," Rosalind Osgood, chairwoman of the Broward School Board, said Tuesday.
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, a three-day hearing that pits pro-mask parents against the DeSantis administration and state education officials was wrapping up, with a ruling by a judge expected soon. 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.