Aug 10, 2021
Local school officials continue to grapple with implementing student mask policies as the academic year begins this week in many counties.
And as school districts navigate a requirement that parents must be able to opt out of mask mandates for their children, the state is looking to target local school officials who don’t comply with the restriction.
Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on July 30 aimed at barring local school boards from imposing mask mandates for students. Triggered by the order, the state Department of Health on Friday approved a new rule that, in part, requires school mask mandates to allow parents to opt out of the requirement.
“Students may wear masks or facial coverings as a mitigation measure; however, the school must allow for a parent or legal guardian of the student to opt out the student from wearing a face covering or mask,” the health department’s rule said.
Following the agency’s approval of the new rule, various school districts have announced mask policies that include an opt-out provision – but they are approaching the issue in different ways.
Palm Beach County Superintendent Michael Burke, for example, issued an updated mask policy over the weekend that includes a provision allowing parents to opt out of the mask requirement for their children without having to provide an explanation.
“In order to opt out, parents who do not want their student wearing a facial covering must send a signed note to the school informing the child’s first-period teacher of this decision,” Burke wrote in a letter to parents and staff.
At least one school district, however, is requiring parents who want their children to opt out of wearing a mask to provide a medical reason for the exception.
Leon County Schools Superintendent Rocky Hanna held a press conference Monday detailing a temporary mask requirement for elementary and middle school students when they return to campuses today.
“As hard as this is for me, I am going to require masks to be worn by all students (in grades) pre-k through eight,” Hanna said, “unless otherwise noted by a physician or a psychologist that the child has a health condition and there is a health reason as to why they really should not be wearing a mask in school, for either physical or mental health reasons.”
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said that districts requiring a doctor’s note for students to be excused from wearing a mask are not following the governor’s order.
“All parents deserve the freedom to choose whether to opt out their own child. This should not be contingent on their ability to procure a doctor’s note. These policies violate the spirit of the EO (executive order) protecting parents’ freedom to choose,” Pushaw told The News Service of Florida in an email Monday.
DeSantis’ order, in part, directed state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran to withhold funds from “noncompliant” school boards that impose mask requirements during the school year.
Pushaw didn’t say directly whether districts requiring a doctor’s note to opt out of mask wearing would be subject to the withholding of funds as threatened in the governor’s order. But she provided new details about how the financial penalties might be applied.
Pushaw said that the state board could “move to withhold the salary of the district superintendent or school board members, as a narrowly tailored means to address the decision-makers who led to the violation of law.”
“I know this speaks against what the Department of Health said, what our governor has said, what our state Board of Education says,” Hanna said of Leon County’s school mask mandate. “At the end of the day, if something happened and things went sideways for us this week and next week as we started school, and heaven forbid we lost a child to this virus, I can’t just simply blame the governor.”
Instead, Hanna added, he would blame himself for not taking the action he felt was appropriate to keep students safe.
“If there’s an out and I didn’t take the out, and I didn’t do what was best for the children here in Tallahassee and Leon County, that’s on me. And every time I looked at myself in the mirror it would be really hard to answer to that guy,” Hanna said.
Mark Richard, a lawyer whose clients include the Florida Education Association, questioned whether the governor and top state officials are overstepping their legal authority.
“The first legal question that is raised by the department’s rule is, does the executive branch – the governor and the department – even have a legal authority to be usurping the obligations of a local school district?” Richard told the News Service Monday.
He maintained that elected school officials have constitutional duties to provide a safe education for schoolchildren.
“The second challenge will be, is it clear enough … that it is a parent’s choice to opt out,” Richard said. “The difficulty from a legal point of view … is what about the parents’ choices to make sure their kids are safe?”
He said there are “many critical legal questions” being raised by the DeSantis administration’s rule.
“They’re looking down the barrel of a Department of Health regulation that says unvaccinated students can come to school regardless of the danger that it might present to their classmates or to the staff,” Richard said.
subhed = “COVID-19 harassment” qualifies for private school vouchers
Florida’s Board of Education also decided Friday to provide private school vouchers to parents who say a public school district’s mask-wearing requirements amount to harassment of their children.
The move to take private tuition costs from public school funding created yet another flashpoint in the fight between local school boards and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis over coronavirus safety measures in schools. DeSantis has long supported efforts to expand school privatization and says parents should be able to decide how to provide for their children’s health and education.
The board invoked an existing law to clarify eligibility for the Hope Scholarship, which is meant to protect children against bullying, adding “COVID-19 harassment” as a prohibited form of discrimination. It defined this as “any threatening, discriminatory, insulting or dehumanizing verbal, written or physical conduct” students suffer as a result of COVID-19 protocols, such as mask or testing requirements, and isolation measures that “have the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance.”
So far, multiple Florida school districts have decided to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and require masks when they restart classes. South Florida districts remained undecided at press time as to their mask directives.
The Broward County School Board had voted to require masks after hours of contentious debate that included a screaming match from angry anti-mask parents who set fire to masks and held picket signs outside. The board reversed course last Monday over fear of losing funding. Then, they changed their minds again this week, settling for a mask mandate late Tuesday afternoon. The Miami-Dade school district still hasn’t announced whether or not masks will continue to be optional or required.
More than a dozen Florida parents filed a lawsuit Friday in Miami federal court against DeSantis, the state Department of Education and some of the largest school districts, alleging that the ban on mask mandates violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. They say their disabled children will be unable to attend public schools with unmasked classmates because they are at high risk of COVID-19 infection.
Florida leads the nation in COVID-19 related hospitalizations, rising from 12,516 to 12,864 on Thursday, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Hospital data shows 2,680 of those patients required intensive care, using about 42% of the ICU beds in the state, compared with the less than 20% they were using two weeks ago.
The Florida Department of Health published its weekly statistics showing a rise of seven-day average cases, from 15,817 to 19,250, last Friday, the highest average in the pandemic for the third time in a week. The state tallied 616 deaths in one week, raising the total COVID-19 death toll to 39,695.
The number of people getting vaccinated is also rising, with more than 380,000 people getting them in the last seven-day period, compared with 334,000 the previous week.
Separately, late Thursday, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that weekly COVID-19 testing will be required for all 29,000 non-school county employees unless they show proof of vaccination amid a surge of infections from the delta variant of the coronavirus. The policy takes effect Aug. 16.
“We’ve endured too much and seen too many families hurting,” the mayor said in a tweet on Thursday urging people to get the vaccine. “We have the power to avoid what is truly preventable.”
Content for this report was sourced from The News Service of Florida and The Associated Press.
The Miami Times is the largest Black-owned newspaper in the south serving Miami’s Black community since 1923. The award-winning weekly is frequently recognized as the best Black newspaper in the country by the National Newspaper Publishers Association.